Wichita State’s cross country teams are unbeaten in what amounts to an exhibition season. Running against mostly non-NCAA Division I schools, the Shockers won the JK Gold Classic on Sept. 1 and the Richard Clark Invitational last weekend in Springfield, Mo.
While they did defeat teams such as Kansas State, Missouri State and UMKC in those meets, the stakes rise dramatically the rest of the fall. After taking this weekend off, the Shockers run at the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla. on Saturday and the Pre-Nationals Meet in Louisville, Ky. on Oct. 13. The Missouri Valley Conference championships are Oct. 27 in Normal, Ill.
“These are great meets to practice what’s coming,” WSU cross country coach Kirk Hunter said. “The competition level hasn’t been as high as what’s coming, and we knew that. It’s always good to get into your season and work on some things that can get your ready for those higher-level meets.”
Hunter is particularly encouraged by the development of his men’s team. The Shockers grabbed six of the top eight spots in the Missouri State meet and four of the top 10 in the JK Gold Classic. Hunter wants his team to learn to run as a pack and the Shockers put individual times behind team goals the first two weekends.
“We worked a great deal on running as a team,” he said. “The better, tighter pack we have up toward the front, the better we’ll do as a team.”
That strategy requires sacrifice by WSU’s top runners. Senior Marcos Bailon finished second (25 minutes, 25 seconds in the 8-kilometer) in Missouri, seven seconds behind UMKC’s Cosmas Ayabei. Bailon didn’t push his pace until late in the race so he could run with his teammates. His job is to encourage the slower runners and keep the pack running hard. Hunter told his runners he wanted to hear plenty of talking during the race.
“It’s team chemistry,” Bailon said. “Throughout the race we’ll be talking to each other, calling each other’s name out.”
The pack mentality will be most important at the MVC meet. In between, there are opportunities for Bailon to run for himself. The Shockers will face larger fields and more talented in Stillwater and Louisville and it will be more difficult for the runners to stick together.
“That was the perfect time to work on everybody staying together,” Bailon said.
WSU’s women are in slightly different situation. Hunter wants to his pack of runners to get closer to senior All-American Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton (18:01 in the 5-kilometer run). She won the Clark Invitational by 25 seconds on a rainy, muddy day. WSU’s Kaitlyn McLeod finished second with Samantha Shukla and Elida Bailon (Marcos’ wife) in the top 10.
In a good way.
Old as in mature. Old as in willing to tip instead of swinging into a block in order to keep the play alive. Driskill, playing against an overmatched Evansville team in a sweep, produced her best performance of a young career.
“I saw her take some real grown-up, old-person swings,” volleyball coach Chris Lamb said. “If something wasn’t right, she just chucked it over the net. She rolled it in and let her defense try to win the rally. It’s hard to pull back the reins when she’s out there scoring points. But there’s a time and a place to pull it back a little bit and keep the rally going when the set’s not there or the approach isn’t there.”
Driskill is used to scoring big, which means aggressively swinging for kills. She said ball-control drills during individual sessions are helping her direct the ball. She also recognizes smarter decisions helped her avoid attack errors.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I hate tipping. I always want to swing.”
The Shockers play in the Marilynn Smith Sunflower Invitational on Monday and Tuesday in Lawrence. They will face several of the same teams that finished ahead of them in Nebraska — Kansas State, Missouri State and Nebraska. Kansas and Illinois State are also in the field, all teams the Shockers need head-to-head wins over to build a power ranking.
“The NCAA selection committee does it just like basketball,” McCurday said. “All the teams that we’re in the same pool with are going to be bubble teams. You have to have winning percentages against those teams, for sure, to get the nod.”
McCurdy is patching together his top five due to injury and illness. Senior Hollie Weatherburn, whom McCurdy calls his most consistent golfer, is sidelined with anemia. Her return is uncertain.
He hopes the return of senior Natalie Samb, who didn’t qualify for the first tournament, provides a boost.
“She qualified much better,” McCurdy said. “She just had some swing things she needed to iron out.”