Perhaps reluctant to admit it, head coach Jeremy Karger and assistant Amber Vaneps must feel this year's women's team has tremendous potential. They lost one runner from 2008 (three-time all-UMAC Allison Betsch), but return everyone else from a young squad that placed third in the conference meet.
This optimism is further enhanced by the arrival of prize recruit Linda Keller of Paynesville who enters UMM as a two-time class A cross country state champ and is the reigning 2008 one- and two-mile champ in track and field. Though Keller was offered athletic scholarships to several division I universities, she accepted an academic scholarship to UMM instead.
"I expect Linda will contribute immediately for us," Karger says. "Last year at a sectional meet, I watched her win the two-mile and then five minutes later lead off her team's 4-by-4 relay." Keller's sister is also a UMM student.
Of the returners, the Cougars will be paced by the Schneiderman sisters of Magnolia, juniors Debbie and Katie. Karger calls Debbie a "tireless worker," and an unassuming presence who is very popular with her teammates. Twin sister Katie placed sixth at the conference meet last year and runs mid-24s for the 6K. The Schneiderman twins will also share captaincy duties along with junior Mallory King of Albert Lea.
Sophomore Gemma Miltich of Cohasset leads a long list of returners who Karger expects to have excellent seasons, including Melissa Kloek of Stillwater, Rebecca Baldridge of Vadnais Heights, Cristina Montanez of El Paso, Texas, Sonja Smidt of Apple Valley, Katie Saddison of White Pigeon, Mich., and transfer recruit Kacy Nehowig of Paynesville.
Going into just its third year, the UMM men's cross country team has already grown to formidable size (number of runners) and presence (high finishes) in the UMAC.
The cross country season is an especially unforgiving gauntlet as the UMAC conference race sets the final terms on the season. The men's performance in this race in 2008 (4th) fell short of expectations and left them energized for a new year.
The harriers are paced by junior Luke Toso of Falcon Heights, who finished sixth at the conference meet in 2008, making the all-UMAC team. During the season, he ran personal best 27:30 in the 8K.
Karger describes Toso as an "effortless" runner who likes to race and surge at the end. For the indoor track season, Toso holds the school's 800-meter record.
Junior Andrew Rehmann of Roseville was a high school teammate of Toso's at Roseville High School. They frequently can be found near each other during races, usually among the top placers. Also like Toso, Rehmann holds a school record for the 800 meters in track - this one outside.
Karger says Rehmann "just has the perfect running form," which led to his all-conference team placing two years ago. In 2008, Rehmann ran the conference meet while battling illness and missed all-UMAC placing.
"I'm confident Andrew will rebound to form this season," says Karger.
Despite last year being his first of cross country, junior Ian Philbrick of Rochester earned the respect of his teammates enough to be named team captain for 2009.
"He does everything a captain should," Karger says. "He looks out for people. He motivates others on the road. He does everything."
Philbrick has improved dramatically in two years, owing much of that to his focus on running form. In 2009 track, he ran a personal best 16:25 in the 5K.
The Cougars welcome at least three freshmen runners to this year's team - Matt Huseby of Eagle Lake, Nick Fox of Sartell, and Jacob VonRentzell of Waconia.
They will also rely heavily on many returners for valuable points during the season, including sophomore Ted Gray of Long Prairie, sophomore Dan Nelson of Dayton, junior Dugan Flanders of Paynesville, and sophomore Denver Rogalla of Onamia.
In the pre-season, the harriers made a training trip to Lake Carlos. Karger says motivation and energy are strong throughout both teams.
"We're a young team on both sides and those who were here last year were not satisfied with our finish. So, I expect we'll make great improvements up and down our roster."