Feature: Hawks cross country blazes the trail to NAIA Nationals

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Head Coach Jay Stephenson prepares his team before a race

Head Coach Jay Stephenson prepares his team before a race

Nov. 20, 2008

Rome, Ga. - New athletic programs making quick appearances in postseason events seems to be the norm at Shorter College of late.

And it's not just about football.

For the record, the Hawks' cross-country team has blazed the trail for the college.

On Saturday in Kenosha, Wis., head coach Jay Stephenson's men's squad will be competing in its second-straight NAIA National Championship in the program's brief three-year history, while three members of the women's team - the most ever - will also make the trip.

"These are the guys who I recruited three years ago at the start of the program," Stephenson said about the men's team that enters the national meet ranked No. 18 and fresh from winning its second-straight Southern States Athletic Conference championship. "They are a bunch of guys who dedicated themselves to work hard and now they're seeing the benefits."

While the rapid rise in the NAIA cross-country ranks is remarkable, it's not surprising knowing that the Hawks have a coach who is very familiar with success - Stephenson was a three-time NAIA All-American at Berry College - and a veteran group of seniors who form the heart of the squad and are looking to improve on last year's 24th-place finish at the nationals.

Leading the charge this weekend for the Hawks will be senior Martin Hernandez, who earned his second straight SSAC Runner of the Year honor two weeks ago when he successfully defended his overall title in the conference met held at Stonebridge Golf Club, completing the 8-kilometer course first in 24 minutes, 59.06 seconds.

"He does not give up under any circumstances," Stephenson said of the runner from California, "and by doing that consistently produces great results.

"And how he works is picked up by the rest of the team. For the past two years, they've been running between 70 and 100 miles a week."

Twin brothers Jared Carson and Josh Carson probably have been doing that a lot longer and the two seniors proved that running together pays dividends.

In the conference meet in which the Hawks combined for a perfect score by taking the top five places, the brothers from Smyrna finished right behind Hernandez just seconds apart, with Jared taking second place (25:45.99) and Josh finishing third (25:45.09).

Senior Cyrus Wakaba of Kenya followed in the perfect conference run, finishing fourth in 25:47.15. Sophomore Steven Rich of Trussville, Ala., rounded out Shorter's top-5 finish at the conference meet with a time of 25:47.97, while sophomore Ben Anthony of Newnan (26:14.73) was ninth overall.

Adding even more depth for the Hawks in Kenosha will be senior Therron Smith of Cartersville and sophomore Brenton Widener of Thomson, while freshman Peter Limo of Kenya rejoins the team after missing the SSAC run due to an injury.

"Before every race," Stephenson said, "the coaches sit down and talk about the good goal the team can reach and a great goal. The athletes also do it and this week their good goal is finishing in the top 15 and their great goal is being in the top 8, and by no coincidence, those were the same goals the coaches had. But in the back of everyone's mind is the feeling that we could do even better."

While the men focus in on their mission, Justyna Mudy, Sarah Massey and Kaitlin Shaw will carry the Lady Hawks' banner to the meet after they helped Shorter finish second in the conference meet and earned at-large bids to the nationals.

Mudy, a sophomore from Poland, cruised to the SSAC individual championship and Runner of the Year honor this year completing the 5K course in 17:22.63. Massey, a freshman from Acworth, and Shaw, a sophomore from Ringgold, earned the national trip taking fifth and sixth places in the conference, respectively.

Stephenson believes Mudy, who has won her last five races, has a good chance at contending for a national championship, pointing to her first-place finish in October in an invitational held in Kenosha on the same course where the nationals will take place in 17:26.

"Everyone got to run the course already this year," Stephenson said, "so they know what it's like."

And although the races will be held in what will almost certainly be a chilly Wisconsin morning - the women run at 10:30 a.m. CST and the men start at 11 - Stephenson is expecting the conditions to be near ideal.

"I understand that when we run," the coach said, "that the temperature will be around 38 to 40 degrees, and if that's the case it'll be perfect."

Shorter College Men's Cross Country
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