Women's Cross Country Preview with Steve Sisson
Aug. 30, 2011
With classes underway, the University of Texas Women's Cross Country team is preparing to begin their 2011 season. A year ago, fourth-year assistant coach Stephen Sisson and the Horns posted a 20th-place finish at the 2010 NCAA Cross Country Championships, their highest since 1989. Texas also won the South Central Regional title to earn an automatic team bid to the NCAAs, its first since 2003.
The Longhorns are returning six of their seven athletes who competed at the NCAA Championships, in addition to bringing in a strong recruiting class of freshmen. Senior Mia Behm placed 27th overall at the Championships to earn All-America status while also being named to the USTFCCCA's Division I All-Academic Cross Country team. Her finish was the highest by a Longhorn since 2000. Along with Behm, Texas return sophomores Marielle Hall, Megan Siebert and Sara Sutherland along with senior Julie Amthor, who all scored for the Horns in Terre Haute.
Along with the returnees, Texas will also receive help from a talented group of incoming freshmen that features the 2010 1,600m Texas State Champion, the 3,200m runner up at the 2010 State meet and a wealth of other new Longhorns that Sisson is excited to see develop.
Coach Sisson, the 2010 USTFCCCA South Central Region Coach of the Year, sat down for the following season preview with TexasSports.com. Stay tuned to TexasSports.com to hear from several of the student athletes in the upcoming weeks.
On his expectations for this season: We are a top 20 team in the country, based on our results at the NCAA National Championships last year. We were number one in our region, which is our qualifier for the National Championship. We had a poorer Big 12 meet than we were hoping. So, coming back and bringing six of top seven back, and I have a really good recruiting class this year. I have some kids that did not make my top seven last year who are very hungry to be in my top seven, and then I have a talented freshman recruiting class. It's a nice position to be in, to have that kind of depth. It's the first time I really feel like, in my six or seven spot all the way to my 10th spot, I have almost interchangeable people. That is a really good spot to be in from a depth perspective, but it also is going to create a more competitive environment and you don't always know how that is going to affect your overall team `gelling'. Our expectation for this year is to be competitive at the Big 12 level. What does that mean? We've lost Colorado, whom I believe would have been the number one team in the conference this year, but they won't be there, in fact I believe Colorado will be in the top three teams in the whole country, they are very good. So, we are happy to see them leave, from where our position will be on the podium, if we get to the podium. But, we are sad to see them leave because the competitive equity in the conference goes down. I think in our conference we can be top five, and my goal is to be top three. But of course the athletes have to set their own goals. Our mantra this year is that we are going to let our actions speak for us, rather than talking it up, but I believe if you put me down for specific goals, they would be for us to be in the top three in the league, and top 20 in the country, to repeat our performance from last year. Our big challenge this year will be backing up the kinds of performances we had last year. It's one thing to stumble your way into national prominence, but it is another thing to come in a year knowing you should be at that level, and having to step up in perform to that level. Its been years since we've been a pre-season ranked team, and there are pressures to go along with that, and it will be interesting to see how this group handles the pressures.
On the experience of being at the National Championships: Basically what happened by going to NCAAs last year, the team saw that it's an incredibly competitive race. They were intimidated, and our performance showed for it. I really do believe we were better than a 20th place team, based on what we did at the region meet. But that's why we run races. We had some step-down performances from some key people, and we had some step-up performances. Mia Behm, as usual, she's a rock star. She shows up at the most important times, and she always steps up and produces what she needs to produce. But after her second-place finish at the NCAA championships in track and field, she's got something to prove. She's got the ability to be much better than her 35th place finish, and it will be up to her, whether or not she steps up and takes advantage of that. As Mia goes, in a lot of ways, that's the way Sara [Sutherland] and Marielle [Hall] go. I think that the experience at the NCAA championship has made a huge difference for this team. I think they will be much better at the national championships than they were last year. But they still have to run the race, and we'll see how they perform at that level. We are doing something very different in terms of racing. We are not going to the pre-national meet. We're going to a regional meet. I think our team is good enough to not have to chase points. I don't feel the need to do that. I think our group needs to get more aerobically developed this year. They need to be fitter and stronger to be able to make it to the end of the year.
On the schedule, and how it will help the team prepare: This is the second year that we will have gone to the University of Houston meet. It is a low key, two-mile, 3200m race. It will be hot, because Texas is hot, and that will be a difficulty. But, we are going to do a couple different things at the meet. We are not going to run all of our athletes. We will probably run our freshman unattached in the first meet to try to determine who we need to consider saving for another year and have them do that. But we're going to the University of Houston, just an opener, to get the rust off. Marielle and Sara will not race the first race, because they went deep into the track season. They'll get a chance to get their legs back under them. Then we do not race again until Sept. 30 at a home meet on a pretty difficult course. That's going to allow us to train and focus on getting our top 10 in a really good, fit position. The last of the season ends up being very similar. We usually go to a high quality [race]. We have gone to pre-nationals the last two years, but before that we went to the Chile Pepper meet in Fayetteville, so we're going back to Chile Pepper. The pre-national meet was not as stellar this year. So we decided not to go back there. It is also being run on a Sunday, which doesn't fit very well with the way we travel and the way we train. Last year we did so well at the pre-national meet, that I really want to put our focus on the Big 12 and doing well at the Big 12 meet. We are going to be in Aggieland, and they are going to be coming with it. We want to do well for from the Texas perspective and do our job in scoring those points for the State Farm Lone Star Showdown, but we are hoping to be competitive at Big 12 regionals and the national championship. We are focusing more on the end of the season instead of a big premier mid-season meet. There are dangers associated with that. It could be difficult for us, but with the number of seniors we have, I do not need them to experience high-level competition early on, and my freshmen are going to have to earn their way into the top seven, so I don't need to take them to that level of a meet. That is why we have made the decision we made, and we want to be ready later in the season, and we felt me did not do as well last year we thought.
On the incoming class: On paper it is my best recruiting class since I have been here at Texas. I have seven incoming athletes. The number one and number two girls in the state of Texas decided to be Texas Longhorns. Connor Ward won the mile at the high school state championship, a 4:54 1600m, and she was second or third with a 10:37 in the 3200m. I haven't had an athlete as with that kind of time as an incoming freshman since Betzy [Jimenez] was here. I also have Jenna Reed from Highland Park, the same high school where Sara Sutherland came from. I see similar kinds of attributes in her that I saw in Sara. She will be a slow developer and she will come along over the course of the year. She is going to be amazing at this level, I believe. I also have an athlete from New Jersey named Katie Watson.
Update on Mia: Mia [Siebert] is rested, excited, and not looking through the cross country season like she did last year. Last year she used cross country as a stepping stone to get her ready for indoor/outdoor season. This year she wants to prove that she is a national player, and she has made the commitment, though she's not a lover of cross, she much prefers indoor/outdoor track. She realizes that if she is going to be a big dog, she got to bark like one. Mia could be anywhere from the top five in the nation as an individual to the top 25. It depends on what she shows up doing. I am not concerned about her fitness; her fitness is right where it needs to be. We designed our schedule so we would be ready later in the year on purpose. So I have got zero concerns with where she sits. I'm very happy with where she is at and her focus. Most surprising is Sara and Marielle coming in in the kind of fitness they are in. They're both strong, focused and have high goals. That is what you are looking for if you have got a group of athletes who are in a situation where they really understand what it is required to be a top 15, maybe even top 10 national team. Then they will act accordingly in both training and racing environments. So if I have got three athletes who really walk the walk in that regard, we will be good. If they don't, then we are going to have a transition year that is going to be tough. Texas is now a national player at the NCAA level. We are not going to go away. We are going to be here and we are going to be strong. We are recruiting that way, our athletes are stepping up to the plate, and I believe we can do some amazing things this year. It really is not a coaching decision at this point. It will be how those athletes develop and balance.