Aug. 30, 2005
Coming off a season which produced two top-five conference finishes, the Auburn men's and women's cross country teams are primed to parlay last year's success into even better results. With the men finishing fourth in the SEC and the women finishing fifth, the program experienced many firsts, including qualifying a member from both the men's and women's team for the NCAA Championships. For the women, senior and two-time SEC Champion, Angela Homan won every race in 2004 leading up to the championships before finishing ninth and earning All-America honors. Sophomore Chris Walsh represented the men, as he became only the second male in Auburn history to compete at the NCAA Championships, finishing 73rd.
The 2005 season will usher in a new era in Auburn cross country with distance/cross country coach Peter Watson taking over for former coach Chris Fox. A 2001 graduate of West Virginia, Watson was a four-time letterman for the Mountaineers track and cross country programs. Watson inherits a team that has become a consistent challenger in the SEC. In the last three years, Auburn has had five individual qualifiers represent the university at the NCAA Championships and Watson has his sights set on a higher goal. "The whole goal for this team is to go to nationals," said Watson. "If we aren't at nationals, it is a very big disappointment for us."
The men return 10 letterwinners from a year ago, including five of their top-seven runners from a team that placed fourth at the 2004 SEC Championships. With an experienced squad returning, Watson believes this team has an excellent shot at obtaining a national ranking and qualifying for nationals. Watson would like nothing more than to have one of his teams qualify for the NCAA Championships, but he knows the ground work must be laid first. "The SEC Championships are going to be our first true measuring stick," stated Watson. "It is one of the great conferences in the country and we are trying to establish ourselves among some of the best programs in the nation."
In hopes of becoming the first men's team to qualify for the NCAA Championships since 1980, the team upped the intensity of offseason workouts. Starting in June, the men were running upwards of 70-100 miles per week. "The extra work that the team did over the summer is going to help us out significantly," said Watson. "Aerobically, they are more developed, more mature and they are able to handle stronger workloads without breaking down, which translates into faster running."
The men's squad will lean heavily on Walsh, who earned All-SEC honors as a freshman and was named the 2004 SEC Freshman of the Year. The Charleston, W.V., native paced the Tigers in three of the five team events, including a fifth-place finish at the SEC Championships. "Chris had a great year last year," Watson said. "Once again, if things go right, he could earn another top-five finish at the SEC Championships and shoot for All-American."
Another key to the success of the team will be senior Andrew Heath, who was the Tigers' top finisher in two events last season. Heath is a two-time All-SEC selection who also excels in the classroom, earning Academic All-District IV honors in 2004. Heath will be called upon to lead a veteran group that includes nine seniors. "His attitude this year is going to have a huge impact on the way the team acts and reacts to certain situations," said Watson. "He goes about his business and works hard and doesn't complain and everyone looks up to him for that."
Back-to-back SEC Champion and 2004 All-American Angela Homan is one of just two seniors on the women's team, which returns eight letterwinners from a team that finished fifth in the conference. Despite the loss of two of the top-five runners from last year, Watson believes the women can match last year's fifth-place finish in the SEC. "Our goal for the women is for them to become better runners this year than what they were last year," said Watson. "We have a lot of freshman and sophomores, and their progression is what is going to lead to a strong future for the women's team."
One of the most challenging tasks for the women's team will be replacing the consistency of Kylee Swanson. Swanson finished second among Auburn competitors in four of five events. Primed to pick up some of the slack left by the departure of Swanson is senior Dawn Morgan. Besides Homan, Morgan was the lone Tiger to finish a race higher than Swanson when she finished third at the season-opening Georgia State Invite. "We're counting on Dawn to be a very strong No. 2," said Watson. "We're looking for her to be five or 10 places better than last year at regionals and maybe even better."
If there was ever a sure-fire guarantee in cross country it would be the performance of Homan. A two-time All-American, Homan will once again lead the Tigers and she has her sights on another productive season. "Angela is looking to become the first-ever three-time SEC Champion and the first Tiger to make three-time All-American," said Watson.
As for Homan winning at the NCAAs, Watson doesn't believe it is a fair measuring stick. "It is a hard goal to put out there," commented Watson. "Obviously, winning a national title would be brilliant. She has the talent to do it and she has the work ethic to do it, but there is great talent out there. On a bad day Angela is top 10 and on a good day she is top three."
The 2005 season will get underway on September 2nd when the Tigers travel to Columbus, Ga. for the Columbus College Invitational. The regular season consists of five events, which will be highlighted by the annual Auburn Invitational on October 8th at Indian Pines Golf Course. The postseason begins on October 29th, with LSU hosting the SEC Championships. The Tigers have hopes of concluding their season on November 21st at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.