Plenty of unknowns as OC women’s cross country starts season

Tavia Hoheisel is one of three returning runners and the only junior on this year's OC women's cross country squad.
Tavia Hoheisel is one of three returning runners and the only junior on this year's OC women's cross country squad.

OKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 2, 2013) – For the second straight year, there isn’t much experience on Oklahoma Christian’s women’s cross country team, which means there are plenty of unknowns as the Lady Eagles start the 2013 season.

OC has only one junior and no seniors on its roster and just three returning runners from a team that, if not for untimely injuries and illnesses, probably would have finished in the top 10 at the National Christian College Athletic Association meet.

Second-year coach Wade Miller hopes an influx of new runners will help the program’s fortunes continue to improve as the university enters the second year of the NCAA Division II membership process. The Lady Eagles will open their season Saturday in the Central Oklahoma Land Run in Edmond.

“I don’t see us taking any steps back, by any means,” Miller said. “I think this team is capable of finishing in the top 10 at the national meet.”

There’s little doubt who OC’s top runner is entering the season. Sophomore Tara Lewis became only the fifth runner in the program’s history to post a top-50 individual finish at a national meet, coming in 43rd to lead the Lady Eagles at the NCCAA Championship in Cedarville, Ohio. Lewis was the only OC runner to compete in all seven meets on the 2012 schedule and recorded three top-10 finishes.

After a strong summer of training, she figures to be one of the top runners in the Heartland Conference and could vie for NCCAA All-America honors.

“It took a while for her to figure out the college system – academics and taking care of your studies and all that, while still getting your practice and workouts in and getting enough rest,” Miller said. “I think, especially in track season, she figured that out and it started to click. I think she’s one year more mature as an athlete and an individual. I anticipate that paying dividends this year.”

The other two returning runners are junior Tavia Hoheisel and sophomore Maria Sargent, who both gained valuable experience last year, when the Lady Eagles had only six women on the roster. Both ran at the NCCAA meet and again figure to compete for a spot in the starting lineup.

“I think they’re going to fill a role of leadership,” Miller said. “I was really happy with them getting through the season last year. I think they understand how we need to approach things this year.

“There is an adjustment period, getting to know one another, when you’re coaching an athlete. I feel like we’ve established some training parameters that we need to stay within in how we approach their training in a healthy manner. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will be able to get another full season out of them. They will definitely be a factor in our overall outcome.”

For the six freshmen entering the program – Sarah Cobb, Layne Hammer, Aubree Hughes, Katie Jones, Christina Pulpan and Maci Rich – the opportunity is there to quickly make a mark.

Cobb has a top time of 19:19 in the 5,000 meters and ran for a Texas Class 5A prep team that won a district championship. She comes to OC with plenty of distance-running experience and endurance, Miller said.

From her time as a prep runner in Colorado, Hammer has experience competing at the 5,000-meter collegiate cross country distance, with a top time of 18:48.80. She’s also coming off an excellent final prep track season and Miller sees potential for her to be “pretty strong” and make a good adjustment to collegiate running.

Rich starred in the Oklahoma small-school ranks and has good speed, but Miller said she will need to add “an element of strength to that,” something she already has started to work on. Once that happens, “she will definitely blossom,” he said.

Hughes is coming off an injury and Miller hopes to have her at full strength by season’s end. Jones comes from Alaska and has had to adjust to a significantly different – i.e. hot – climate in Oklahoma, but Miller thinks “she will surprise herself” with how fast she can run over 5,000 meters.

Pulpan, a late addition to the squad, has shown potential during preseason runs and should provide depth – which shouldn’t be discounted, as the Lady Eagles didn’t have enough healthy runners to field a complete team at last year’s NCCAA meet.

“There’s an adjustment period,” Miller said. “For all of those freshmen, there will be a transition and it’s really hard to say exactly how that is going to play out, but we need to have patience. I have told them there is going to be an adjustment and we need to take it day by day, with a long-term outlook. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to take the time to really develop them as athletes.”