When a sports team is rebuilding, the expectation is that its on field performance will take a hit.
Despite what head coach Sean Cleary called a "massive rebuilding year" in 2018, the WVU cross-country team did not see all that large of a drop in its performance a year ago.
The team finished fourth at the Big 12 Championship and sixth at the NCAA Regional with current junior Hayley Jackson finishing high enough to earn All-Big 12 accolades.
"I think the expectations for last year’s team were far exceeded through almost the entire season," Cleary said. " Just in the final moment of the NCAA regional meet I thought we dropped our guard slightly. In reflection I think fourth was there for us, we didn’t execute it."
The Mountaineers finished 59 points out of fourth place. With a fourth place finish at regionals, Cleary said that he would have given the 2018 team an A+ grade for the season, but otherwise still give them an A or A-.
The good news for Cleary is that every top five runner in 2018 will return for 2019.
While he expects Jackson will be the team's leading runner, Cleary said there is a pack of girls he expects will be chasing her all season and another group behind them that will also contribute. He believes the team this year has 10 or 11 runners deep that can all contribute.
Alongside Jackson, redshirt seniors Olivia Hill and Candace Jones will be among the team's top finishers all season with junior Bree Warren, redshirt junior Antigone Archer and redshirt sophomore Marianne Abdalah behind them.
Cleary also expects productive years from sophomore Charlotte Wood and redshirt junior Sarah Will, but both are battling injuries to begin the year and will not see action until later in the season.
The team opens the season this Friday at the Lehigh Invitational and will compete in the Spike Shoe Invitational at Penn State and the Lock Haven invitational in September.
Cleary said he treats September as a way to continue preparing and allow some of the younger runners to get experience before getting into the meat of their schedule in October.
“September for me is a chance for our emerging girls to perform," Cleary said."[Women’s soccer head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown] can’t do that. She can’t perform against Duquesne or Stanford with her next generation of great runners, she has to line it up. Football can’t do that, we can do that in our sport.”
Among those young runners will be redshirt freshmen Mikenna Vanderhayden, Katherine Dowie and true freshman Ceili McCabe.
In October, the team will travel to the University of Arkansas to compete in the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival, will again compete at Penn State in the National Open and then at the University of Wisconsin at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin invitational.
Cleary said traveling that much during the season is uncharacteristic for his team, but that he believes that these meets will put them in the best position to make the national championships.
Cleary said traveling to these tough meets will present a challenge to his young team and that they will have to learn what it takes to be successful as a team.
“I think the biggest challenge is, regardless of where they came from, many of these girls are used to winning.”
Cleary gave the hypothetical situation that in the team’s meet in Wisconsin, his top five finishers could place 20th, 40th, 60th, 80th and 100th, respectively, and it would still be a big success for the team.
“On paper, from an outside view, that doesn’t look impressive," Cleary said. "In a meet like that, that will bring us home as a top-20 team in the country. So the biggest challenge is how to teach these young women how to finish 100th.”
While making the national championship is the goal, Cleary is careful not to overlook the competition in the Big 12, where there are three or four teams he believes will make nationals.
Cleary believes WVU has a shot to go to the national championships, but that they’re “peeking in from the outside.” He is confident that Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State will all make nationals from the Big 12 and that there is one other team like WVU that has a shot to go.
The only way to make the national championship is to run, which the Mountaineers will be able to start doing very soon.