By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (September, 2015) — With seven seniors leading the men’s team and three women returning who ran at nationals two years ago, the excitement of Tarleton State head coach Pat Ponder entering the 2015 cross country campaign seems justified.
Tarleton will begin its season against a slew of tough competition at the Ken Garland Invitational Saturday, hosted by the University of North Texas in Denton.
“I know every coach tells you they are excited entering a new year, but I really am. I’m very excited,” says Ponder, who enters his ninth year leading Tarleton’s cross country and track and field programs and his 28th year overall. “The kids have been getting after it since June, and we’ve been working hard here the last couple weeks. It’s going to be fun to see them race. Training is one thing, competing is another.”
As with all season openers, Ponder is especially curious what he will get out of his newcomers. This year that means keeping a close eye on freshmen Andelynn Carlton of China Spring on the women’s side and Cameron Milligan of Brownsboro for the men.
“Ande and Cameron have stars in their eyes right now because it’s their first time, but they’ll be fine,” Ponder said. “I’m excited to see what both of them can do. I know what the seniors can do and should do, but I’m also excited to see these freshmen compete at this level for the first time.”
The Tarleton men are ranked seventh in the South Central Region by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The Texans are picked to finish second and the TexAnns fourth in the Lone Star Conference.
“On the guys side, for lack of a better term, we’re loaded,” Ponder says. “We’re loaded with seniors in Chase Rathke, Tye Doty, Dylan Willett, Dallas Rushing, Luke Scribner, Mason Wrobel and Thorne Pettigrew. Then you have a good junior in Andrew Clark.”
Pettigrew was named Tarleton Men’s Cross Country MVP last year. Rathke redshirted in cross country last year and is a 1,500 meter outdoor national champion with a total of three outdoor and indoor All-American honors. Doty, voted by his peers to be the team captain this year, also redshirted a year ago after an injury-plagued but still successful 2013 campaign. Willett won two meets a season ago.
On the women’s side, Aly Coughlin redshirted last year but is back as a senior and has been voted team captain of the TexAnns. As a transfer from Division I Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., Coughlin was named LSC Cross Country Newcomer of the Year. She was all-conference and all-region, helping Tarleton to its first NCAA nationals appearance.
“I’m very pleased with who the athletes have elected as captains in Aly and Tye,” Ponder said. “They are 4.0 students, have been since they got here, and they just know how to carry themselves on the course, in the classroom and in the community. I know without a doubt that our captains are truly leading by example and showing the other athletes what it takes to be successful both in our sport and in life. As a coach, there is nothing more I can ask of them.”
In addition to Coughlin, Ponder is also eager for the competitive return of sophomore Audrey Shelton, who redshirted last year after being named LSC Women’s Cross Country Female of the Year in 2013, Tylo Farrar, a senior who won a met and had four top 10 finishes last year, and Katelin Huckabay, a junior who ran on Tarleton’s national-qualifying team in 2013 but competed just once due to injury last fall.
Also intriguing on the women’s side is sophomore Haley Dennard, a Decatur product who Ponder says, “has just improved so much from her freshman year to now.”
Ponder has set big goals for both teams, one he hopes to accomplish right here.
“We want to win the conference meet. That’s never easy, but we’re hosting it this year on our home course at Tejas Golf Course, and any time you host an event you want to put your best foot forward both in the way you manage the meet and take care of everyone and, of course, by the way you compete, which is hopefully to win.”
Just as big a goal, and just as important to Ponder, is earning Academic All-American team status.
“These kiddos are solid in the classroom, and when you look at cross country runners in general, they are usually academically sound,” Ponder said. “Tye and Aly lead the way and sort of set the bar so to speak, and then you have student like (Farrar) who is so gifted and has about a 3.6 GPA, and (Dennard) is in the same boat. We just have great kids in the classroom and that makes my job fun because I don’t have to be concerned with their studies or how they’re behaving when they aren’t under my watch.
“I told the kids I expect both teams to be Academic All-American teams,” he added. “We have to have a cumulative 3.5 to do that, and I know we are capable.”
He also expects to return to nationals. With not just one team, but both.
“The top six in the region go on to nationals and we are, without a doubt, in the toughest region ever in Division II. Adams State, Western State and Mines in Colorado are the top programs in the nation, you never know which other RMAC schools will have some studs and then you have West Texas (A&M), which is always tough,” he said. “But I expect us to get to nationals, and I’m trying to teach our athletes to expect that. If you don’t expect to make it, you never will.”