It’s not easy to replace an all-American runner.
And yet that’s what the No. 7 Eastern Oregon men’s cross country team will have to do this fall if it hopes to remain in the top 10 in the nation with the graduation of Nic Maszk, who placed 11th at nationals a year ago.
EOU Head Coach Ben Welch said the Mountaineers will have to do that with depth, adding the 2018 edition of the Mountaineers may be in a position to do that based on some of their preseason workouts.
“Depth is going to be the key,” Welch said. “Our time trial was faster through (the top) seven than we were last year.”
EOU does return a handful of athletes who helped the program to a seventh place finish at nationals last November, including their next four top finishers behind Maszk in Alex Navarro (66th place at nationals), Dustin Zimmerly (78th), Thomas Morrell III (86th) and Lane Inwards (119th).
“We’re excited,” Inwards, a senior, said. “It’s fun to have a big returning group. You know what you’re working with. We lost Nic which is going to hurt, (but) we’re ready to take that position (as team leaders) and take on the new class we got.”
Welch said there is a chance Navarro may be redshirted this fall, but added the senior is having an impressive preseason, so that decision could change by the time EOU takes the course in its home opening meet Sept. 21.
Brandon Hartill is the fifth returner of the seven athletes who competed at nationals a year ago, where he placed 233rd.
Welch said he’s confident in the runners who are back.
“They’re all more fit than they were by and large last year,” he said.
Transfer Hunter Kratz and returning sophomore Hunter Schiess will be in the mix, as will freshmen Travis Running and Braxton Wilson, both from Hood River.
“They have talent and a willingness to work hard,” Welch said.
And while it could be expected, the coach added there isn’t pressure on the team to build on the expectations that come with a No. 7 finish from last year with so many pieces back.
“It’s more incentive. I don’t think this group views that as pressure,” he said.
“For teams there it could be, but I don’t think our team feels that. It’s something we expected to see,” he said.
The Eastern Oregon women’s team is also largely intact from a year ago with the biggest loss being Rachel Roelle, who just missed out on being an all-American at nationals a year ago.
The Mountaineers take to the course with several returners and a large freshman class, many of whom could be in the mix right away for Welch.
“Very excited about them,” he said. “They came in prepared. It’s the biggest freshman group we’ve had in decades. I think the last time I had this big a freshman class was in the ‘90s.”
The freshmen, in fact, were among the strongest athletes in the team time trial. Katie Jo Gebhardt, Michelle Herbes and Molly Gulden were three of the top four athletes for the Mountaineers, with Gebhardt winning the event. Calista Van Delden also ranked highly in the time trial.
“(That) is a pretty good indicator that you’re ready to run,” Welch said of Gebhardt’s time trial win.
Welch said Faith Homer, Megan Boals and Amanda Welch are leading the pack for EOU returners.
Homer is returning to the cross country course after redshirting in the sport last fall.
“The freshmen class is looking really good. They came in super motivated,” the senior said. “A lot of our returners came back really fit, had really good (summer) training.”
There’s also some motivation for Homer and the Mountaineers after taking sixth in the Cascade Collegiate Conference a year ago, just 10 points behind fifth-place Northwest. The top five from the CCC all qualified for nationals last fall.
Homer said she’s additionally driven because she missed last season due to redshirting.
“I’m definitely a lot more motivated,” Homer said. “Going to a lot of the meets last year and seeing the girls team miss out on going to nationals was hard because I feel I could have made that difference. That has been motivation. I want to set a good example and help the girls team get to nationals.”
EOU was ranked just seventh in the CCC preseason poll, but Welch believes the team should be in the mix for the top four in the conference, which could also mean a potential national berth.
“Kind of baffling,” Welch said of the ranking. “We’ve got a better core back. But I don’t care. Just kind of adds fuel to the fire for the ladies.”
The EOU women open the season today at the College of Southern Idaho Classic in Twin Falls. Both teams compete at the EOU Invitational Sept. 21, and the CCC championships are Nov. 3 in Issaquah, Washington.