WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- With all but one of its top eight runners returning this fall, the women's cross country team at Whitman College is ready to challenge for a Northwest Conference (NWC) title over the next few months, says head coach Carol Feezell.
Feezell also forecasts a stronger season ahead for her men's team, although she isn't setting her sights and expectations quite as high for that less experienced group.
The Missionary women hope to build on theiir momentum from last fall's NCAA Div. III regional qualifying meet, where they placed second in a 16-team field. Unfortunately for Whitman, only the winning school at regionals advanced to the national championships.
While the University of Puget Sound, which won last year's NWC title, did not compete in the regional meet, the Whitman women outran their other conference rivals -- Pacific Lutheran, Linfield and Willamette -- to take second place behind regional champ Colorado College. It was Whitman's best team performance of the season.
Elisa Bobnes (McMinnville OR) developed into Whitman's top runner last fall as she enjoyed the first injury-free season of her collegiate career. Bobnes capped her junior year by placing seventh in the conference championships, earning all-conference honors, and by nearly qualifying for nationals as an individual with an eighth-place showing at regionals.
Bobnes is one of four seniors this year with an inside track on the team's top eight spots. The other three seniors are Kitty Rasmussen (Seattle WA), who placed 23rd in last year's conference meet; Taylor Dale (Crested Butte CO), who finished in 31st place; and Megan Hunter (Boulder CO), who placed 42nd. Both Dale and Hunter finished strong after missing much of the season due to injury.
Heather Koertje, a junior, also returns this fall and figures to be one of the squad's top runners. Koertje, a graduate of Walla Walla High School, bolted to a 12th-place showing at regionals last year after placing 22nd in the conference meet.
"Elisa, Heather and Kitty could be our top three runners," Feezell says. "Taylor also is an experienced senior with talent, and if Megan can stay injury free, she will be one of our top runners as well. If the women all stay healthy, we're going to have a very strong team and definitely have a shot at the conference title."
Feezell is hoping that last year's only graduated senior, Faye Hutchison, has left behind a lasting legacy.
"Faye was such an amazing leader and great positive influence," she says. "She welcomed newcomers and helped create such a wonderful team atmosphere. I hope what she gave her team will be remembered and passed on."
Hutchison placed ninth in last year's regional meet, after finishing 18th in the conference championships. One runner Feezell hopes can fill Hutchison's void is incoming freshman Mary Jo Southwick of Heber City, Utah. "Mary Jo placed in the top 10 in her state championship meet, and she has run some very impressive times," Feezell says. "She could very well be one of our top eight runners."
A second freshman with good potential is Kyra Hamilton, who was a standout high school runner in St. Paul, Minnesota. "It's hard to say how Kyra will do this fall," Feezell says. "She took a much needed break from running over the summer months, and she's just now beginning to build a base for the season."
Other runners returning from last year are seniors Amanda Havens (Olympia WA) and sophomore Piper Foster (Colorado Springs CO).
On the Whitman men's side, junior Lars Tysver (Bothell WA) is the best among the returning runners. Tysver placed 34th in last year's conference race.
"Lars made good improvements during the track season last spring, and I think he will continue to make significant improvements this fall," Feezell says.
Others returning to the men's squad are senior Kelii Kotubetey (Kailua HI) and sophomore Joel Byersdorfer (Issaquah WA).
Feezell also expects good contributions from three incoming freshmen -- Ryan Gold (Talent OR), Andrew Moore (Portland OR) and Jerome Schwartz (Bellingham WA), as well as from senior Bracan Williams (Lynnwood WA), a track athlete who is running cross country for the first time.
The Whitman squads will open their season Saturday, Sept. 4, with the Inland Empire Invitational in Coeur d'Alene, ID. Whitman's annual invitational at Ft. Walla Walla Park is set for Friday, Sept. 24.
The NWC championships are slated for Saturday, Oct. 30, and will be followed the next two weekends by the NCAA Div. III regional and national meets.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information, (509) 527-5902