After an intense 5-meet season, the ACU Cross Country team headed to Lake Charles, La. to compete in the Southland Conference Champion- ships today.
The championship races will give the Wildcats an opportunity to finish a tough season with a state- ment: that cross country is once again ready to rise to the standards that have made the sport a dynasty in ACU athletic history.
The Wildcats have prepared for this season’s transition to Div. I competition with the help of three new coaches. Head coach Keith Barnier brings with him a wealth of coaching experience from several Div. II and Div. I universities, including Southeastern Conference powerhouse Alabama.
Complementing Barnier’s coaching experience is the running experience of new assistant coach Drew Graham, a former All-American distance runner at Adams State University, and graduate assistant coach Ray Walker, who just finished his cross country career at Notre Dame College in Euclid, Ohio.
This much combined experience has been vital to the success of the season, considering this year’s team consists mostly of freshmen. There are 15 new runners, but despite the youth of the team, the Wildcats stepped up and achieved quite a bit throughout the season.
Senior All-American Chloe Susset leads the women’s team in expe- rience and success, followed by a talented group of freshmen, including standouts Diana GarcÃa MuÃ±oz and Landa Dowdy.
Susset has had an impressive fall, earning two Southland Conference Runner of the Week honors. She took the College 5K title in the team’s opening meet on Sept. 7 at the annual Bill Libby/McMurry Invitational, while the Wildcats took second place in the women’s race. A week later, Susset came within five seconds of receiving her second title in a row at the Red Raider Open in Lubbock, while the team came in third place overall. Women’s cross country also took an impressive second place overall in the Incarnate Word Cardinal Invitation on Oct. 12.
The men’s team also has experienced leaders in seniors Erik Forrister and Gary Duncan. Forrister is a former Lone Star Conference Men’s Academic Runner of the Year who, as a sophomore, missed out on all-conference honors by one spot.
While men’s cross country has had an inconsistent fall, they also gave some impressive performances that proved their potential.
They stumbled at the Red Raider Open with a ninth place finish out of 13 teams and at the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree, coming in last place.
However, the season’s highlights included fourth place finishes in both the Libby/McMurry Invitational and the University of Incarnate Word Invitational.
“Perhaps our best meet was the Incarnate Word meet, where we won the dual with Incarnate Word and almost got third by two points,” said Forrister. “We might not be where we once were, and by no means are we at the top of D-1 cross country, but we are competitive, and we are definitely on the rise to becoming a great D-1 program.”
Not every race was smooth for the women’s team either. They struggled at Oklahoma State, finishing ninth out of 12 teams. At the NCAA Pre-Nationals, the Wildcats took 33rd place out of 35 teams. However, these statistics do not accurately reflect the talent or the potential of the young ladies in purple and white.
“Pre-Nationals in Indiana is one of the nation’s biggest cross country meets,” Susset said. “The competition itself was unbelievable. We were able to compare ourselves to all the best schools in the country and that showed us how much we can improve. We have a young team and my teammates’ individual improvements have been impressive.”
Southland Conference Championships began at 8:30 a.m., and the Wildcats are optimistic about their chances.
“Our transition to D-1 hasn’t been easy, but I feel that we have stepped up and proven ourselves D-1-worthy,” Forrister said. “I’m excited to see what we can do at conference and how the program will grow in the future.”