STEPHENVILLE – The 2021 cross country season is set to be unlike any other in Tarleton sports history.
“New” and “unique” are perhaps apt adjectives to use in description.
For starters, the fall sport, which typically begins in September, will have competitions staged in January and February as previously announced by the Western Athletic Conference. Tarleton will compete in just two meets as well, beginning with the Incarnate Word Invitational on Friday and concluding with the Seattle-based WAC Championships on Feb. 27.
Gone are the Lone Star Conference and Division II level where Tarleton thrived, winning an LSC title on the women’s side in 2015 and racking up six NCAA South Central Regional Championship appearances since 2012. Also departed are 12 faces from men’s and women’s teams that advanced to the 2019 South Central Regional Championships and notched six combined top-five team finishes across five meets.
Instead, eight new faces – seven whom are freshmen – join seven returners to help guide the Texans into their debut Division I campaign and first season as a member WAC institution on Friday in San Antonio.
For 14th-year head coach Pat Ponder, though, it’s business as usual despite the altered landscape.
“It won’t be a big change for us, because we’ve already been running against Division I competition,” he said.
Indeed, the UIW Invitational field contains a host of familiar faces, such as fellow WAC member UTRGV, longtime rival Abilene Christian and Southland Conference foe Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The cross country team has previously competed on the UIW course, held at Live Oak’s Main City Park, at past meets.
“As far as the meet at Incarnate, we’ve been there, we’ve run on the course, we’re very familiar with it,” Ponder said. “Now obviously, these athletes I have on the team now, some of them have, some of them haven’t. That’ll be the difference as far as familiarity with the course.”
The women run first, with the 6k race scheduled to start at 4 p.m. The men’s 8k race is slated to follow at 4:30 p.m. The meet is closed to the public but results and a full recap will be posted to TarletonSports.com shortly after the conclusion of the men’s race.
Both teams then have a month to prepare for the conference championships. Unlike other sports, cross country and track and field are eligible to compete for and win WAC championships as Tarleton completes its NCAA-mandated four-year transition to the Division I ranks.
“The biggest change for us is when we go to Seattle for the conference championship,” Ponder said. “The level of competition there is obviously something we’ve never seen before.”
The Texans return four distance runners from the 2019 men’s roster and three on the women’s side, highlighted by sophomore Kevin Baez and senior Imani Williams. Baez and Williams each notched first place finishes at the Bob Gravett Invitational and had the teams’ top marks in the 8k (25:58.90) and 5k (19:26.50), respectively. They were Tarleton’s top finishers at the Lone Star Conference Championships and NCAA South Central Regional Championships as well.
Sophomore Jenna Brazeal is also expected to help anchor the women’s distance crew. The Little River, Texas native was Tarleton’s second-fastest female finisher in all five of its 2019 meets behind Williams. Brazeal’s freshman campaign was highlighted by a 16th-place finish (23:44.65) at the LSC Championships and appearance at the NCAA South Central Regional Championship, where she took 75th in 24:10.29.
Fellow sophomores Gerardo Cipres and Dominick Vastlik are also back for the men’s team as are senior Johnnie Wilkinson and sophomore Kaleigh Ellis on the women’s side.
“Not that he’s a new face, but Kevin Baez is the leader on the men’s team, and the guys will follow his direction,” Ponder said. “On the women’s side, obviously you have Imani Williams. She’s a senior. I hope that the athletes on the girls’ team will look to her for a direct path and be successful. Again, you don’t know how they’ll handle the transition until the competition starts.”
Athletes were dismissed for an extended holiday break in December and continued their training individually. Both the cross country and track and field teams resumed team workouts earlier in January. Ponder previously announced that Tarleton will not compete in indoor track and field and instead move directly into the outdoor season, beginning with the Wes Kittley ACU Invitational on March 18.
“I tell them every day, ‘You can’t hide behind another runner,” Ponder said. “That’s the beauty of our sport. If they don’t train, if they don’t take care of their business during the winter break, then the results will show.”