Last year the EMU cross country teams exploded onto the scene, with the women earning a spot in the regional rankings early on. Although Coach Jason Lewkowicz expects his women to cause similar waves by the end of this season, he doesn't expect them to make a splash right away.
In 2012, the Lady Royals rose to as high as No. 5 in the South/Southeast Regional Rankings, just two short years removed from not even being able to field a full scoring team. Lewkowicz returns all but one of his top seven runners from that group as he enters his third campaign at EMU; however, three of those women are recovering from injuries and will ease into this season: Hannah Chappell-Dick (Bluffton, Oh./Bluffton), Krista Rittenhouse (Mt. Pleasant, Pa./Mt. Pleasant Area) and Chafin Brumfield (Harrisonburg, Va./Spotswood).
"The expectations will be high (this year) and I think we will be able to rise to the occasion and challenge for an ODAC title and top five region finish if we can stay healthy," explained Lewkowicz. "With three of our top runners recovering from injuries, we will not be at full strength for the first half of the season. Don't expect to see Hannah, Krista, or Chafin race until October. But with our goals coming at the end of the season, that is our focus so we are going to use the season to set us up for a championship run."
Chappell-Dick earned All-ODAC First Team status by finishing sixth as a freshman at the ODAC Championships. The women did graduate All-ODAC Second Teamer Alli Eanes, but should be anchored early on by some talented runners.
Sophomore Jolee Paden (St. Joseph, Ill./St. Joseph-Odgen), who forms a highly talented trio of classmates with Chappell-Dick and Brumfield, was hampered by a late-season illness in 2012, and junior Katie Eckman (Quarryville, Pa./Solanco), who earned an All-ODAC Second Team spot in 2011, was also slowed by an injury late last fall. Those two, along with junior Lanae Kreider (Harrisonburg, Va./Broadway), will lead the Eastern Mennonite women until everyone returns to full strength.
"I expect Jolee to emerge as our top runner with Hannah falling right there with her once she gets back to racing," Lewkowicz said. "Krista should complete our top five when she is healthy with Chafin, Juni Schirch (Goshen, Ind./Goshen), and Patty Danaher (Matoaca, Va./Matoaca) all vying to get into that top seven group that will compete at the NCAA Regional Championships."
At the ODAC Preview Meet last fall, EMU's women turned more than a few heads by taking second place as a team. They finished among the top spots in most of their races during the season before slipping to fourth at the ODAC Championships and tenth at the Regional Meet.
Lewkowicz wants to better his finishes from the exciting 2012 season, but is shooting for an even higher goal.
"The big goal is an ODAC Championship and top three region finish," he said. "I am really excited about the 2013 season. It is all about finishing what we started last year before injuries and illness led to a disappointing finish, if you can call a top 10 region finish a disappointment. They now know they can compete with anyone in the ODAC and the region, but that it will take hard work to take the next step and win a championship."
He said the key to meeting this season's increased expectations is simple.
"For us it will be all about staying healthy," Lewkowicz explained. "This team is coming in hungry and confident so, if we are at 100%, they know what they are capable of accomplishing."
The season, which starts with the ODAC Preview Meet at Hampden-Sydney on Aug. 30, will also feature the opening of a new home course in Elkton. Eastern Mennonite will co-host a meet there on Sept. 21.
"Former assistant coach Sam Woody has developed an excellent system of trails out in Elkton," said Lewkowicz, "and we are excited to team up with Bridgewater College to co-host the 1st Annual Shenandoah Valley XC Invitational. We just finished finalizing the course for this year's race and it is set up to be a great event. The course is in a beautiful setting and portions of the course are very spectator friendly."
Look for more information on the course at Elk Run Trails later this fall on the EMU cross country website.