'Quality athletes' bolster Milligan in cross country

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com
Milligan College has one of its youngest cross country teams yet, but Coach Chris Layne says that isn't exactly a drawback.
"We don't have to run defense or offense or spend weekends watching films to improve," he said. "We just have quality athletes and (in cross country) you can get away with that."
The only negative aspect of having such a young team is that the runners do have less experience.
"It's twofold, sure," Layne said. "Experience pays off, but I'm excited that these guys will be around for two or three more years. From a recruiting standpoint, it helps as well. We have guys coming back, and we can say, 'look at what we've done.'"
Layne lost only one of last year's top five men's runners and returned the other four in Chris Wright, Shane Oakleaf, Ted Dubois, and Brandon Talbert. Sophomore Trevor Donovan is back as well, after a season off.
Oakleaf is the team's only senior, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. Two promising new additions to the team are freshmen Josh Ferry and Sean Bowman, who have already quickly pushed their way into Milligan's top five.
"They're really young, but they're a really good squad," Layne said. "Chris is obviously our leader in the sense of who's the best runner coming back." Chris Wright was the AAC Region champion last season and qualified for nationals.
The men's program is currently ranked 26th in the nation's pre-season, but Layne suspects that will change soon. "I think we'll move out and rank in the top 25," he said. "We've got some really talented folks up from 1, 2, 3."
Ferry and Bowman are two young runners that are bound to bring success to Milligan's squad. Ferry placed 12th in the nation in the indoor 800 his senior year of high school, as well as taking an outdoor state title. Bowman ranked in the top ten in his home state of Indiana in cross country and track, and also earned top ten recognition in the AAU cross country nationals.
Bowman's recruitment follows an interesting turn. Layne had been in contact with Josh Ferry about attending Milligan after his graduation. "Josh had shown interest in Milligan from a school standpoint," Layne said. The coach spoke with him several times, and Ferry began telling Coach Layne about his best friend, Sean Bowman, with whom he ran in Indiana. The coach recruited the pair of friends.
"They both blossomed their senior year (in high school)," Layne said. "They really grew up and blew up, which was exciting for us. For us to sign two young men like that would be like a basketball team signing two blue-chip caliber athletes."
Last week, after the Western Carolina Invitational, newcomer Bowman finished as Milligan's top runner with 26:16, a personal best, followed by Wright with 26:47. Ferry also made a personal record with 27:13, Oakleaf, and Donovan.
"The guys are tricky," Layne said. "We've got eight guys fighting for the top five."
The coach said that he had three or four runners that are probably interchangeable, as far as rankings go, on any given weekend. "We've got a lot of depth," he said.
Another runner that is vying for one of the top five positions is Johnson City native Jair Collie, who is in his first season of collegiate cross country competition.
Layne explained that even though everyone can't be in the top five, it can be beneficial from a team standpoint. "We might put eight in front of another team's top five, which is good for us."
On his women's cross country team, Layne is excited about his new recruit from Poland, Marta Zimon. After joining the cross country team in January, the freshman runner has already taken the national championship in the NAIA indoor 5000.
"She's definitely going to be our number one girl," Layne said of Zimon. "Our top two girls last year were Megan Lease and Lauren Gross." Lease placed 52nd at nationals and won the region meet, setting a course record.
Gross was third in Region 12 last year, and went to nationals, placing 111th. "She's improved dramatically this year," Layne said. Gross's record for the 5000 was 20:01, but she opened this season with a time of 19:32.
With Marta currently in the top position, Gross holds spot two, and is followed by Lease in three, Ann Marie Gardner in four, and Amber Peace in five. "We're really solid 1, 2, 3, but we don't have the depth that we do on the men's side," Coach Layne said.
The teams will travel to Asheville, NC on Saturday to compete in the Land of the Sky Invitational at Brevard College. There, they will compete head-to-head with many of their conference schools, including Montreat, Brevard, and Covenant. "We'll get a good idea of where we stand," said Coach Layne.