HARROGATE, Tenn. - With two All-South Atlantic Conference performers returning to the course along with a bountiful haul on the recruiting trail, the Lincoln Memorial University men's cross country team is poised for a promising 2014 campaign.
The Railsplitters recorded a successful season in 2013 by most measures, nabbing a 10th place run at the loaded Greater Louisville Classic, a top-five finish in the Berea Invitational and a win in the Tiger Twilight Invitational, a head-to-head race versus the University of the South. Those showings proceeded the postseason, which saw Lincoln Memorial finish fifth in the South Atlantic Conference Championship meet in Black Mountain, N.C. and 13th in the NCAA Southeast Regional to conclude the cross country slate.
Only two runners are returning from last season's squad, but both were vital pieces of the Railsplitters' collective success in 2013 as junior Ryan Mecca (Niagara Falls, Ontario) is coming off of an All-South Atlantic Conference first team run in the league championship meet, while senior Brandon Ward (Kingsport, Tenn.) was a second team runner in that event.
"Ryan Mecca and Brandon Ward are two great returners for us to have, they're as good as any two returning runners on any team in the conference," commented head coach Jeremy Donahue. "We're very pleased with that. We look for even improvements upon their All-conference performances last year. They're in great shape right now."
Ryan Mecca led the Railsplitters in all five events that he competed in last season, finishing inside the top 10 on three occasions including a seventh-place run at the South Atlantic Conference Championship meet, earning All-SAC first team laurels for that effort. Mecca added another seventh-place finish at the Greater Louisville Classic, which featured 320 individual runners across D-II, D-III and the NAIA. Along with a 10th place showing in Berea and a win in the Tiger Twilight (a two-team race), Mecca narrowly missed out on an All-Region performance with a 27th place finish at the NCAA Southeast Regional in Charlotte, N.C.
Like Mecca, Brandon Ward was a consistent force in the Railsplitters' lineup last season, placing as one of the team's top-three runners in all seven of his events. The Kingsport, Tenn. native was an All-SAC second team runner after a 13th place turn at the league championship race. With Mecca sidelined due to injury in the early portion of the season, Ward led the Railsplitters in both the Queen City Invitational and the Hyder-McMahill Invitational with 55th and 14th place runs, respectively. He wrapped up his 2013 season with a 37th place run in the NCAA Southeast Regional.
Aside from Mecca and Ward, the Railsplitters feature an entirely new roster in 2014 with the addition of six freshmen. Jonathan Conley (Smyrna, Tenn.), Emmanuel Juarez-Albs (Acworth, Ga.), Jacob King (Douglasville, Ga.), Zachary Moore (Woodstock, Ga.), Dale Pate (Sylvester, Ga.) and Nate Sizemore (Cincinnati, Ohio) are each expected to provide immediate production in their first season at Lincoln Memorial, as the six newbies have already experienced significant individual and team success before arriving on campus.
"All of them can be contributors to the team, so that's the big thing," Donahue continued. "Every one of them can be successful. We look for them to rotate positions in our lineup race-to-race. If a guy is off than we have somebody to step right in."
Conley arrives at LMU as a three-time qualifier for the AAA Tennessee State Track Championship with a runner-up finish in the 2013 AAA State Championship 800 meter race. Juarez-Alba participated in both the 2012 and 2013 Georgia State Cross Country Championship. King placed 25th individually at the 2013 4A State Championship meet while wrapping up his prep career with a 4.0 GPA. Moore was a top-seven runner at perennial powerhouse Sequoyah High School, which finished in the top 10 of the Georgia State Championship in three-consecutive seasons. Pate, meanwhile, captured three region titles at Worth County High School in addition to earning All-State honors in 2013. Finally, Sizemore heads to LMU from Colerain High School, just north of Cincinnati, where he posted a personal best of 4:47 in the 1600 meter run.
The Railsplitters are slated for five regular-season events, beginning with the Catawba Invitational in Salisbury, N.C. on September 5. Following that race, Lincoln Memorial travels to Danville, Ky. for the Centre Invitational on September 13. The Railsplitters run for the final time in September on the 20th with a return trip to Berea, Ky. for the Berea Invitational. Lincoln Memorial heads back to the Bluegrass State once again on October 4 for the Greater Louisville Classic before venturing to Wilmington, Ohio for the Jenna Strong Fall Classic, the final tune-up before postseason action.
The South Atlantic Conference Championship is slated for November 8 in Salisbury, N.C., while the NCAA Southeast Regional will transition from its previous host city, Charlotte, N.C., to Montevallo, Ala. The Southeast Region run is scheduled for November 22.
"We're looking forward to really just getting this first race under our belt," Donahue finished. "I think really once we get that under our belt we'll know where to go from there. Now it's just us staying patient, waiting on September 5 to come around."