Winthrop's men's and women's cross country teams will compete in the Big South championships Saturday. Liberty is set to host the event for the first time in program history.
The Eagles have been dealt some significant setbacks this season.
On the women's side, freshman Jennifer Schofield missed time with a hip injury and will receive a medical redshirt. Junior Brooke Spencer is studying in Costa Rica after running well in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters during the track season.
The men suffered a big hit in the Asics/Winthrop Fall Classic on Oct. 18 when Casey Lyons went down with a torn tendon in his left leg. Lyons was the Big South Freshman of the Year last year. The sophomore had been the Eagles No.1 runner this fall.
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Brandon Hudgins has been on the shelf all year dealing with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare disease characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels.
"We took a great blow losing our No.1. With only seven runners and a very young team, we will have to step it up," Winthrop coach Ben Paxton said. The Eagles will be hard-pressed to match the third-place finish in last year's championships.
Seniors Ben Henderson and Gaines Bailey have been training and mentoring the team through the injuries.
"The whole year, we've had to take a hands-on approach. Especially with the young guys. This is their first go-round," Henderson said.
"Ben is more of a planner, I'm a support guy," Bailey said.
Together they have passed on Winthrop traditions, led drills and stretches.
"As a team we want to go out and be competitive. After losing Casey, the easy thing to do would be to fold, stop caring," Henderson said.
The women's top runner has been Carrie Phillips. She finished 4th in the Asics/Winthrop Fall Classic, 12th in the Winthrop Invitational, 16th in the season-opening Covered Bridge Open and 33rd out of 285 runners at the Greater Louisville Cross Country Classic this year.
The junior has been to the BSC championship before and knows what to expect.
"It helps," she said. "This has been an easy week of practice to be ready for Saturday."
Paxton is happy for Phillips and the season she has put together.
"Carrie continues to run at a level I thought she could," Paxton said.
Phillips, who always runs with a smile, plans to go out fast the first mile. The women's team is looking to improve on the seventh place finish they posted a year ago.
The meet could turn out to be a sweep for host Liberty. The Lady Flames have won the last two BSC titles and were the preseason pick to win their third straight title. They return a trio of All-Big South finishers from the 2007 conference meet, led by Dacia Bushman, senior Rebekah Ricksecker and Katie Albright. Senior Ashley Osborne has had a great season as well. Ricksecker and Osborne may have an edge on the rest of the field to win the individual title.
On the men's side, the Flames were picked to claim their fourth straight Big South championship. If Liberty accomplishes the feat, the Flames would become the first Big South men's cross country squad to capture four conference titles in succession since Radford won six straight championships between 1985 and 1990.
The race should be won by Liberty's Sam Chelanga. Flames coach Brant Tolsma said "spectators will have a chance to see quite possibly the best runner in the country, Sam Chelanga."
Chelanga promises to be the primary attraction at Saturday's meet. He has quickly established himself as a contender for the NCAA national championship, during his first season in a Liberty uniform.
Chelanga, from Nairobi, Kenya, had a dominating performance at the Pre-Nationals on Oct. 18 in Terre Haute, Ind. He ran a 4:18 opening mile and won the race by 44 seconds.
Tolsma expects to win the men's title again.
"I'm fairly confident in the ability of our men's team to defend our Big South championship. However, we're a little beat up right now, and runners No. 4-8 have been struggling a bit. We should be strong enough to pull it off, but I expect our biggest competition to come from High Point," he said.