Buffs groom for Southeast Classic

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com
After running with the "big dogs," and after a vigorous three-week training period, Milligan's cross country team is ready to see if they can outstride Berry College, whose men's team is ranked 16th in the nation, and who is hosting the Southeast Classic in Mount Berry, Georgia on October 25.
"It will be a good test for our men," said Milligan cross country coach Chris Layne. Most of the teams from Milligan's conference will be in attendance. "It should be a good measuring stick," Layne said.
During October third's meet at Appalachian State University, Milligan's teams ran alongside runners from many NCAA Division 1 and 2 schools, including UNC and Virginia Tech.
"All but VI (Virginia Intermont) were NCAA Division 1 schools," said Layne. "Except Lenoir Rhyne, who are Division 2."
"It's good to get exposed to that type of environment," Layne said of the stiff competition his teams ran against at the Blue Ridge Open at ASU, as well as at the Great American Cross Country Festival held in Cary, North Carolina, which also consisted of NCAA Division 1 and 2 teams.
"The Great American was a rough one," Layne said. After training hard, the team took a fall, despite Polish freshman Marta Zimon's first-place finish. "It was a good lesson for them," Layne said. "It's a case of beating them down and then building them back up."
After a heart-to-heart talk with his team, Coach Layne says that they have set self-appointed goals. "It's not just one," Layne said. "It's pretty much across the board. I'm not having to do a whole lot of coaching."
Layne said the team's improvement over the last month is more than any team he's ever coached. That is quite a step considering that they were nationally ranked after the first few weeks in the season.
On the women's side, Marta Zimon, a freshman from Poland, is Layne's top runner, taking first place in the Land of the Sky Invitational, the Great American, and placing sixth in the Blue Ridge Open at ASU.
Running second on the women's team is Lauren Gross, who followed Zimon in the Asheville, NC Invite by taking second place. Layne's number three runner is Megan Lease, who placed fourth in Asheville. "She's made a big move this month," Layne said.
Ann Marie Gardner has helped Layne fill the void in his women's team. After his strong top three runners, the team lacks the depth that the men's team has. "It's been great to have her in the system," Layne said. "She's really been that one person that we needed this year."
On the men's team, the number one spot shifts constantly. "Chris (Wright) and Sean (Bowman) are doing an outstanding job at one and two," Layne said, who couldn't name his top men's runner on any given day because of the ever-shifting lead between Wright and Bowman.
Following the first two positions is an entire pack shuffling for the rest of the top spots, made up of Josh Ferry, Shane Oakleaf, Ted Dubois, Trevor Donovan, Jair Collie, and Brandon Talbert. "That's what makes us so good," Layne said.
At ASU, Wright and Dubois, Milligan's top two finishers, both set personal best records. The next five runners all finished within eleven seconds of one another. Layne said Dubois, who went to nationals last year, has shown vast improvement over the season. "He's very talented. He's committed himself now."
Layne expects this weekend's meet at Mount Berry to go well. "There's lots of schools on our level," he said. "We're not going to see big, big ones. We'll fall right into place there."
Rankers hold the smaller NAIA meets with more credibility than the ones with a large gap between school sizes. Layne said they would rather know how Milligan can run against 16th nationally ranked Berry, than a larger university such as UNC.
Following the Southeast Classic, Milligan's teams will have a week to train for the region meet on November 8th at Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Kentucky. The ACC/Region 11-12 championship will decide who will advance to national competition.
The winners of the men's and women's 5k automatically get to advance, and the top five runners that aren't on the winning team that finish in the top 12 also get to go to nationals. "Every year we've increased the number of individuals going to nationals," Layne said, and hopes to continue the tradition this year.
The NAIA national championship will be held in Louisville, Kentucky on November 22.