As fall gives way to winter, the Eastern Mennonite University track & field teams gear up for their indoor season.
After a successful first season in 2018-19, Coach Bob Hepler's crew is building momentum after a full year of recruiting and a roster buoyed to 50 athletes. The Royals must also deal with the loss of four-time Nationals participant Grant Amoateng as well as Associate Coach Erick Camodeca.
Ready to pick up the mantle will be the huge and talented freshman class of 21, augmented by the returners. As with any young team, finding out who will build on last successes and who will make a splash will be a season-long process, but the excitement is high as the Royals start their year this weekend.
ODAC indoor finish in 2018-19: Men - 8th (20 points); Women - 8th (6 points)
ODAC outdoor finish in 2018-19: Men - 8th (31.5 points); Women - 6th (40 points)
Coach: Bob Hepler (2nd season) – the Royals have earned five All-Region honors and three National Championships qualifiers during Hepler's tenure at EMU
Associate Coach: Erick Camodeca (leaving to be the head coach at his alma mater, Goucher College, at the end of December)
Season openers in 2019-20:
-INDOOR: at Bast-Cregger Invitational at Roanoke College on Friday, Dec. 6-Saturday, Dec. 7
-OUTDOOR: at W&L Carnival at Washington and Lee University on Friday, March 20-Saturday, March 21
Other season highlights:
-at Kaye and JJ Smith Invitational at Shenandoah University on Sunday, Jan. 12
-at ODAC Indoor Championships hosted by Roanoke College on Saturday, Feb. 29-Sunday, March 1
-indoor season wraps at NCAA National Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Friday, March 13-Saturday, March 14
-host EMU Legacy Meet on Friday, April 3
-at ODAC Outdoor Championships hosted by University of Lynchburg on Friday, April 17-Saturday, April 18
-outdoor season wraps at NCAA National Championships in Rochester, N.Y., on Thursday, May 21-Saturday, May 23
SID: How would you recap 2018-19 in a couple of sentences, and how does that play into your teams for this year?
EC: 2018-19 set the foundation for a new beginning here at EMU. We have quickly established a culture of communication, trust, and respect. This is clear, especially with how quickly the freshmen have immersed themselves into the program and set expectations for themselves.
SID: Were there any key losses from last year's team?
EC: Grant Amoateng graduating from the program is a huge loss, and not because of his talent in the sport, but his leadership and charisma will be missed. This is a big role to fill, and will not be done by just one person on this team.
EC: Taj Miller and Toni Doss' experience and growth throughout their time here will be missed. This women's team is very young, and will have to mature quickly and take ownership of this program.
BH: Laurie Serrell pushed the other distance runners to become better athletes. Her leadership was a big reason so many runners improved last year.
SID: Who are some top returners we can expect to hear about this year?
EC: Alijah Johnson looks to fill Grant's role as a point scorer and household name at EMU and in the ODAC. Justin Odom will bring his energy and experience to the (throwing) circle this year, and we expect to see some big numbers out of him during his senior year.
EC: Kiana Childress will take last year's experience and put it to the test this year. She has been having strong workouts, and will add depth to a young group of talented sprinters. In the field, Cor'shauna Cunningham will have a full indoor and outdoor season to improve upon an exciting freshman campaign.
SID: Who are some of the potential ODAC-point earning newcomers this year?
EC: Caleb Wright will be the next EMU jumper to shine on the runway. He has a lot of raw talent, and learning to do, but his work ethic and discipline will give him early success.
EC: This entire freshmen class of women will be earning points across the board this year. Tahira Bakare will be a force in the sprints and relays, Kendra Oguamena will add depth to the sprints and lead the quartet of women vaulters (Skylar Coffey, Aaliyah Lawhorne, and Jasmine Shelton). Soon-to-be dual sport star Ashlyn Eby will be speeding through hurdles and playing lacrosse. Jordan Jones will be all over the track and the field competing as a multi.
SID: What will be the strong areas for the men's team this year?
SID: What will be the strong areas for the women's team this year?
EC: The team! This is a well-rounded team, and we can expect a lot of exciting things from each event group. It will be a fun group to watch.
SID: What are some goals for the team this year?
EC: Consistency I think will be key for the men this year. Although the numbers are not big in the skilled events, if guys are consistent and continue to improve that will be a win for us as we build into next year.
BH: Staying healthy is key for the men and women. This team needs to wash their hands more and stay out of dumpsters. There's also a little too much hugging.
EC: Experience, Confidence, and Patience are the three things we are looking for from this team. I think that will come as they start to get some meets under their belt. They want to be great and will be great, but also need to understand this is a process.
SID: As you enter into your second season at EMU, how do you see the culture of the team changing to where you want it to go?
BH: Last year I was very impressed with the quality of people on the team. However, winning really wasn't an expectation for most athletes. Coach Cam and I continue to stress to the athletes that their sport needs to become part of their lifestyle. Their passion for the sport can be a stress release from life and academic pressures as well as a mechanism to compete well at the conference and national level. We are starting to see more of our students want to do well in the classroom and on the track. That makes me happy because coaches like to put high pressure, unrealistic expectations on young adults.
SID: Overall general feeling of what 2019-20 will be for your team?
EC: Excitement! Personally, I am really sad to be leaving this team, because of the excitement and enthusiasm around the program. Every weekend someone new will be taking the spotlight and getting better. It is a joy to watch every person get better each weekend, no matter if it is a personal best or national qualifying mark.
BH: Coach Cam will continue to be a big influence on the team. We will be a better team and better people because of his contributions. We have wonderful students who will excel academically, athletically and spiritually. I am honored to be the coach of this team.