From Staff Reports
When it comes to approaching an upcoming season, Clayton State men's and women's head cross country coach Mike Mead approaches it no different than the previous season. To him, it's all about where the teams are at the end of the season compared to the beginning.
That's why it's understandable why Mead is optimistic entering the 2010 Laker cross country seasons. There's plenty of reason for hope as both teams have a strong mix of returning runners and talented newcomers. Coming off three consecutive Peach Belt Conference runner-up finishes, the Clayton State men were selected second in the Peach Belt preseason poll, while the Laker women were picked a close third.
"Personally, I think we will do better than that (the PBC preseason predictions) considering the people we have here for this season," said Mead, who is entering his 16th season at the Clayton State helm. "We've been banged up some during the preseason, which is to be expected. For me, it's all about improvement and scoring big in the key meets.
"I would like to see both teams win at least one meet and make a strong showing in Region. That's what counts the most."
The Laker men return five quality runners from the 2009 season. It all centers on senior Fidelis Mutiso.
Mutiso is coming off a banner season in which he was the first Laker male to make an NCAA cross country championship meet since 2005, named Peach Belt Conference co-Runner of the Year, and earned All-Peach Belt Conference and Division II All-Southeast Region. Mutiso will once again be one of the elite runners this season in the Peach Belt after spending the summer training in his native Kenya.
According to Mead, this preseason is the best that he has seen Mutiso in terms of conditioning and endurance.
"I would not be surprised if he picks up where he left off last season and then some," Mead said about Mutiso. "Fidelis is in the best shape that he's ever been and that could make for a tremendous season for him."
In addition to Mutiso, the Lakers return senior Jarrid Casimir, junior Cesar Valdovino and sophomores Ayrton Azcue and Ricky Fort. Mead expects huge improvements from both Casimir and Fort in filling out the top positions on the squad, while Azcue should be at full strength soon after a preseason injury.
The key for the Lakers will be newcomer junior college transfer Albert Mong'ony. A native Kenyan like Mutiso, Mong'uny placed 31st last season at the NJCAA National Meet and consistently runs around 26 minutes in the 8K. Currently, he is awaiting clearance by the NCAA, and once he's cleared, Mead believes Mong'ony can challenge Mutiso for the top spot on the squad.
Mead is also high on freshmen Charles Anderson and Russell Lawless. Anderson hails from Pittsburgh, Pa. while Lawless comes from Richmond Hills, Ga
"Getting Albert cleared is the key," Mead said. "With him and Fidelis, we have the best 1-2 combination on the men's side than we've had in a while. We just cannot afford too many injuries, so staying healthy is the key because we are real thin.
Not so for the Laker women, who also return five quality runners from last season when the Lakers came within five points of finishing runner-up in the Peach Belt championships.
Senior Chelsea Ellis hopes to duplicate a strong 2009 season in which she placed third in the Peach Belt championships and 10th in the Division II Southeast Regional. However, Ellis is recovering from an injury suffered during the track and field season, and is not quite at 100 percent for the start of the cross country season.
As Ellis continues to make steady progress, junior Kourtney Aylor could emerge as one of the top female runners this season in the Peach Belt. Like Ellis, she was also an All-Peach Belt performer last season after transferring from Midwestern State, and Aylor has really set the bar high this preseason for the rest of her Laker teammates.
"This could be a big season for her," Mead said about Aylor. "She has the experience on running for conference and region championship teams. She has high expectations for herself, but the team has to rise up to that level as well."
With Ellis and Aylor battling for the top spots, sophomore Paige Galvin will be a solid support for the squad, as will juniors Rene Mares, Tamara Marshall, and Masiah Hutchinson.
But two key additions for this fall are California freshmen Monique Belmudes and Samantha Walling. Belmudes, who arrived to Clayton State in January from Temecula, Calif., is coming off a solid freshman track and field season in which she was the Lakers' fastest runner in the 1,500-meter run. Walling, from Galt, Calif., was the "Female Athlete of the Year" by The Galt Herald last spring, and was her team's fastest runner in both the 1,600-meter run and 3,200-meter run in track and field. Walling also had personal bests of 19:14 in the 5K and 17:52 in the three-mile run.
Mead believes Belmudes and Walling will figure into the team's success, and that Walling could be one of the top newcomers in the Peach Belt this season.
"She has the wheels," Mead said about Walling. "Her endurance and strength is the key. Potentially, though, she could be our No. 1 runner by the end of the season.
The team also has new additions with freshmen FeLesha Dyer from nearby Eagles' Landing High School and Gisele Javois from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Clayton State opens the 2010 season on Sept. 10 in the Georgia State Invitational at Nash Farms in Hampton, Ga. The Peach Belt Conference Championships will be on Nov. 6 in Augusta, Ga., and the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional will be on Nov. 20 in Charlotte.