Dalhousie Tigers cross country coach Rich Lehman grins as he maps out the year ahead for his women’s team. Lehman has high hopes for this year’s athletes following the 2015 season in which the Tigers not only claimed the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference title but also earned team victories and individual first place finishes at each of the AUS invitational meets.
The majority of last year’s championship team returns to defend the title this fall, losing only Emily Clarke and Michelle Reddy – the former to graduation and the latter to injury. That being said, there don’t appear to be any holes in the roster.
Lehman says co-captain Jenna MacDonald is gearing up for a very strong season to follow last year’s dominant performance, as is UNB transfer Sarah Myatt. Seemingly the biggest problem the coach faces at the moment will be trimming his roster for championship season, when only seven athletes of the twelve named to the varsity squad make the cut.
“We’re pretty close from about two to nine which makes cutting down to seven hard – but it’s a much better problem than not having seven good runners,” says Lehman.
Lehman is similarly confident in his team’s leadership, appointing MacDonald and Melanie McKenna as first-time co-captains following the departure of last year’s captain Emily Clarke.
“Emily was the captain for 4 years, and she did a good job, and that’s where there was a hole to fill. These two really stepped up, and beyond them, the whole team stepped up and that role has been filled and then some, in my opinion.”
The three-time AUS coach of the year is quick to highlight his team’s work ethic and willingness to put in the miles, stating that his female athletes – unlike the men’s team – have not been heavily recruited. The vast majority of his top runners were not winners of their respective provincial high school cross-country titles, “just incredibly hard workers who came in their first year and never stopped coming.”
The Tigers are two meets into their 2016 season, and so far, no surprises. The team did not race three of their top five athletes in the first meet at Acadia, but nonetheless took the overall title by a landslide. Colleen Wilson, named a CIS Second Team All-Canadian last year, won the individual title and beat the second place runner by almost 40 seconds.
The women continued their winning ways at the Moncton Invitational on September 24, taking the team title with Wilson again claiming first individually, followed over the line by Myatt and MacDonald in third and fourth respectively.
On the men’s side, things look a little different than last year with the loss of graduating athlete Matt McNeil. The 2015 AUS Athlete of the Year and CIS First Team All-Canadian was a powerhouse up front all season, and Lehman says he will be sorely missed.
Looking ahead, the coach expects senior runners Will Russell and Jake Wing to lead the men both on and off the course, saying that Russell has been “the vocal, emotional leader on the team for a while now,” with the potential to be a top 30 athlete at CIS championships after having a great track season this year. Wing, like Russell, is also more of a track athlete, having placed in the top eight nationally in the 1000m for the past few years.
“We’re definitely worse at the number one spot than we have been but from two down to seven, we’re a step better than we were last year, and last year we were a step better than we were the year before, so it’s coming.”
On the whole, Lehman is optimistic about the men’s team. He secured the two top graduating runners in Nova Scotia, Trent Lynds and Owen Bishop, who placed third and fourth at last year’s high school provincials. The first and second place runners were both in grade 11, and the Tigers coach is hoping to get at least one of them when it comes time to recruit.
“I don’t want to put a ton of pressure on [Lynds and Bishop] to suddenly be world-class 10k runners – it’s a long way to go. But I suspect one of them will end up on the line at the AUS championships this year as part of the top seven.” He reiterates the difference between women and men making the jump from high school to university competition – women race 6 kilometres in CIS meets compared to 5 kilometres in high school, while the men go from 7 kilometres in high school to 10 kilometres in university.
“The front end of the pack at nationals in the men’s race is coming through 7k about three minutes faster than the Nova Scotia high school 7k is won, and then they go for 10 more minutes so it’s a big ask to say to a 17 year old ‘I need you to PB [run a personal best time] through 7k and keep going,’ whereas I’ve got no problem asking the girls to PB through 5k and keep going – and I do do that.”
The men are off to a strong start this season, placing second as a team at Acadia with third year Angus MacIntosh also taking second individually. Lynds and Bishop placed well in their first university meet, in eighth and fourteenth respectively.
At the Moncton Invitational, the Tigers took second again – and this time it was Russell leading the men’s team, placing fifth, with MacIntosh, Lucas Drever, and Lynds hot on his heels.
Next up is the Dal/SMU Invitational on October 8, where the Tigers look to use home turf advantage. The men hope to put some pressure on StFX, while the women continue their AUS title defense for a third consecutive year.