Wichita State runner Tonya Nero helps the team when she runs fast and wins races. She also helps when she slows down a little.
Coach Kirk Hunter wants to see the fast side of Nero today when the Shockers try to win their sixth straight Missouri Valley Conference women's cross country title. In the practices leading up to today's 5-kilometer race, Nero balanced the goal of winning the race with helping the team win the championship. It's something she gladly juggles.
"Tonya has one goal — to help the team," Hunter said. "After pre-nationals, we immediately started talking about the conference meet. Her immediate question was, 'What can I do to help the team?' Tonya's attitude is infectious for the whole team."
Nero helps the team by pulling other runners along during workouts, and sometimes in races. If she needs to slow down to give another runner a partner and help them through a tough spot, she is willing.
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"She's very team-oriented," junior Danielle Walker said. "If you're running with her, she will talk to you as much as she can and encourage you. She gets everyone riled up."
Nero, a senior from Trinidad and Tobago, owns the MVC's best 5-kilometer time (17 minutes, 09.46 seconds) and is favored to win today. It won't be as sweet without a team title.
"In the conference meet, I will try my best to get them up there with me," she said. "It's not just that I want to try to win, it's as a team."
Nero finished third in the MVC meet last fall. Missouri State's Terry Phillips, the defending champion, is recovering from injury and not running as fast as last year. In the NCAA pre-nationals two weeks ago, Nero turned in the MVC's best 6-kilometer time of 20:38.
"Tonya's the heavy, heavy favorite," Hunter said. "Pre-Nationals showed her fitness level is extremely high."
WSU has won the previous five titles with a combination of heavy hitters and outstanding depth. This season is no different. Leah Thompson (21:50.60) and Walker (21:58.10) also ran well at pre-nationals and rank in the MVC's top 10 for 6-kilometer times. Thompson finished sixth in 2009 meet.
While the WSU women are the favorite, the WSU men are picked seventh in the nine-team race. The Shockers finished a disappointing seventh in 2009 and want to avoid that spot today.
"If we do anything better than seventh, we're going to be pretty happy with it," sophomore Jake Wike said. "If we could crack the top five, considering it's on our home course, I think we would really happy ending the season that way."
Injuries robbed the Shockers of key runners this season. Junior Trace Kendrick will not run today because of a foot injury. Junior Jackson Toroitich, a transfer expected to be one of WSU's top runners, will run his first race of the fall today.