GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Venerable University of North Dakota cross country coach Dick Clay wants to incorporate a singular race strategy among both his men’s and women’s squads this season.
Circumstances, however, may dictate different arrival times for each team on the way to becoming finished products.
Clay wants his teams to start races aggressively in 2017 before settling in to a more normalized pace for the remainder. That shouldn’t be a problem for Clay’s men’s team, which returns four veteran runners among his top five even though presumptive top runner Connor Danielson will redshirt this season.
On the women’s side, however, Clay is managing a senior-less roster riddled with injuries. Understandably, team cohesion may take longer to develop. Returning standout sophomores Erica Eades and Madison Overby will both be unavailable for at least the first two meets of the season. A third runner, freshman Lydia Kantonen, is still recovering from a long and late prep season.
Those who are healthy will get their first taste of competition on Friday at North Dakota State’s Bison Open. The shorter-than-normal races (4K on the women’s side, 6K for the men) will provide Clay and his runners an early opportunity to work on their approach.
“We want to focus on being fairly aggressive at the beginning of the race,” said Clay, now in his 33rd year at UND. “That doesn’t mean going all out, but getting that first mile out at a reasonably good pace and then settling in to our goal pace. That can give you a little bit of a cushion.”
“By the end of the year,” Clay continued, “if we continue to work on that (approach), we should be able to hold our pace pretty well. Mentally, it gives you that good start. That’s going to be something we’ll have to work on with both teams from a racing strategy standpoint.”
Clay will have to endure a season without the aforementioned Danielson, UND’s top runner as a junior last season, but the Fighting Hawks still boast a formidable top five even in his absence.
Seniors Scott Kvidera and Cataldo DiDonna lead the pack, along with sophomores Jacob Henne and Kyle Sweeney. The two seniors have plenty of big-race experience at the collegiate level, while sophs Henne and Sweeney hope to build on terrific offseasons.
“That whole group had the best summer training they’ve had,” said Clay. “Kyle had some 85-mile weeks. To make that next step, that’s what you have to do. Henne came in last year as a late add so he hadn’t done a lot of training in the summer. He was able to do that this year.”
Clay also expects freshman Matt Bakken to become firmly entrenched within the top five.
“That’s a pretty solid five if we can keep them all health,” said Clay. “That’s where we need to develop that sixth or seventh and there’s a couple freshmen who are going to be in the mix.”
Those freshmen would Connor McMannes and Taron Townsend, who boast high ceilings but must first adapt to the collegiate level.
“It’s going to take them a few races to get to where they want to be,” said Clay. “They’re just not used to this kind of training yet. They’re a couple of guys who could surprise at the end of the year, depending on what they can handle. Freshmen take some time to get used to the higher volume of training.”
Until sophomores Eades and Overby are healthy and able to return to the lineup, Clay will lean on their classmate, Hannah Oscarson, as the team’s top runner.
“Hannah should be our leader while they are out,” said Clay. “She had a really good summer of training and is in really good condition.”
From there, freshman Ellyssa Peterson appears to be the odds-on-favorite to slide into UND’s No. 2 spot.
“She could be a surprising one down the road. She’s very competitive, just needs to develop a little bit more,” said Clay.
A healthy nucleus of underclassmen Eades, Overby, Oscarson, Peterson and Kantonen intrigues Clay, who hopes that group can run together for the first time by the end of September at South Dakota State.
“If we can get everyone healthy by the end of the year, we’ll have a pretty solid group,” said Clay. “Especially those top three and then hopefully fill in as the others develop.
“The talent is obviously there, it’s just getting them healthy and racing at the same time.”
UND opens the season Friday at the Bison Open in Fargo. The women’s race begins at 5:45 p.m. Central, followed by the men’s race at 6:20.