CHICAGO, Ill. -- With a strong group of individuals back in the fold, the University of Chicago men's and women's cross country teams will be eyeing a return to the NCAAs in 2012.
Men's Season Preview
The Maroon men finished third at the UAA conference meet and ninth at the regional meet in 2011. Billy Whitmore ended his junior year in style, taking seventh place at the NCAA Nationals to become the fifth All-American in Chicago men's cross country history and the first since 2002. Teammate Isaac Dalke was also a standout performer with a fifth-place showing at the conference meet to go with All-Region accolades.
Chicago has 37 athletes on the men's squad in 2012 - including 10 seniors, seven juniors, nine sophomores and 11 freshmen. The Maroons enter the season ranked No. 38 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) national poll and No. 8 in the regional poll.
Head Coach Chris Hall enters his 12th season at the helm of the program, and his goals for the team have not changed. A team berth at the NCAA Nationals and a move up in the conference standings are the aspirations.
"We did a nice job of moving up to third in the UAA last year, and our conference is loaded," Hall said. "There were six teams from the UAA in the national meet last year. Washington-St. Louis and [New York University] are generally accepted as the top two teams in our conference. But we beat NYU last year at the Brooks Invite. We think we can compete with them and WashU. We'd like to move on to nationals, which means we need to be in the top five in the region. While we know we have to have our best day at the regional meet, I don't think it's an unrealistic goal."
Whitmore returns for his senior season as one of the country's elite runners. Hall is also counting on big years from Dalke, sophomore Renat Zalov, sophomore Kevin Vollrath and senior co-captain Gregor Siegmund.
The veteran head coach believes it will be harder for the incoming freshmen to make an impact right away. But he does have his eye on a few runners whose high school times project well at the next level.
"I think it has a lot to do with getting comfortable with the 8,000 meter distance in college," Hall said. "It is a really different beast to adjust to in the transition from high school to college. The guys we brought into the preseason that would have the best chance to do that are Michael Frasco and Henry Blood. They've had some really good performances in high school that would indicate they should become pretty strong college runners pretty early. I think we're really looking toward our veterans. Perhaps Henry or Michael, as time goes on, will have the ability to help us out."
Women's Season Preview
The 2011 Chicago women's cross country team peaked at the end of the year, finishing third in the region and earning a team berth in the NCAAs. Three runners were named All-Region with one All-American in graduated senior Rachel Ohman.
This year's version of the Maroons features 35 athletes broken down into six seniors, five juniors, nine sophomores and 15 freshmen. Last year's success was reflected in the USTFCCCA preseason rankings with Chicago ranked No. 21 nationally and No. 3 in the Midwest Region.
Hall believes his women's team has a great chance to qualify for the NCAAs as a team for the third-straight year. "I think we have a much better team this year than a year ago," Hall said. "I hope our women can take it a step higher. Last year, our season was disrupted by ailments. We really regrouped for the regional meet, and put a lot of emotion into that. This year, I think we'll have greater expectations. My goal for our women's team is to be in the top 10 in the country."
The elite group is led by juniors Michaela Whitelaw and Kayla McDonald, who both earned All-Region last year. Senior Sarah Peluse also returns after finishing one spot short of an All-Region spot in 2011. Senior Julia Sizek did not run regional or nationals last year because she came off a study abroad program, which disrupted her season. She was All-Region as a sophomore and ran the sixth fastest time in the country in the 10,000 meters last spring during track season. Junior Elise Wummer was the team's No. 2 runner at the beginning of last year.
Hall is particularly excited about his incoming recruits with the likes of Catherine Young, Karin Gorski, Maggie Cornelius, Brianna Hickey, Kristin Greenwood and Kathryn Vandervalk.
"Our freshmen class is really outstanding," Hall said. "Young, Gorski and Cornelius all ran times in cross country last year that would indicate these girls will have an impact in this conference and this region right away. That is the finest recruiting class on paper that we've ever brought in. I think they will make our team very deep. There will be athletes in that group that could consistently score in our top five. We're excited about that group."