The High Point University men’s cross country team was picked to finish second in the 2013 Big South Preseason Poll, the conference announced Tuesday. High Point garnered 131 points to finish behind Liberty. The team is set to kick-off its season this Friday at the Western Carolina Invitational in Cullowhee, N.C. at 6 p.m.
The team placed second in the Big South Championship last year for the sixth consecutive time. After Liberty and High Point in this year’s preseason poll, Campbell came in third followed by VMI. Behind them was Coastal Carolina, UNC Asheville, Winthrop and Radford. Longwood and Gardner-Webb rounding out the top-10. Charleston Southern and Presbyterian College placed 11th and 12th.
“Our goal, like every year, is to win the Big South Championship,” said HPU men’s head coach Mike Esposito. “We’ve come up just short every year and this will be one of the toughest years ever, but we have the pieces to do it.”
The Panthers return a strong team for the 2013 season as they still have five of the top six runners from last year’s conference championship team. The team will rely on the leadership from upperclassmen to attain this season’s goals. Patrick Crawford returns this year as a senior after placing fifth at last year’s Big South Championship. Crawford, an All-Big South runner in his first three years, is looking to become HPU’s first-ever four-time All-Conference selection in cross country.
Also returning is redshirt-sophomore Jeff LaCoste, who placed eighth in last year’s championship. LaCoste was also an All-Big South honoree last year. Joining them is Paddy Grandinali, who finished 16th at the Big South Championship as a freshman.
The Panthers also have Chris Colo, Reece Ayers and John Yankello returning after finishing 19th, 20th and 36th respectively in last year’s championship. In addition, sophomore Cody Seymour, who placed fifth in the 10,000-meter at the Big South Championship last spring, will look to improve on last season. High Point will also have returners Zach Hostetler and Kevin Maguire competing for top spots and adding depth.
Benji Szalai is looking to improve in cross country after an impressive summer. Szalai placed sixth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in the European Under-23 Championship, running a career-best 8:43:65.
High Point added Vinny Todaro, who was the Pennsylvania state champion and went undefeated in cross country his senior year. Another addition to the roster is Chernet Sisay, who comes to High Point after his team won two Massachusetts All-State cross country championships. Sisay was a three-time All-State selection. Both runners along with fellow freshman Mason Lenox will look to contribute for the Panthers right away.
The team will have to compensate for losing Jacob Smith, who became High Point’s first-ever individual champion in 2012. He will run indoor and outdoor track as a fifth-year senior but does not have eligibility remaining to compete in cross country.
“We’re looking to be more consistent this year,” said Esposito. “We need to get that consistency so when it comes time for championship races we know exactly what we’re going to get out of our guys.”
The Western Carolina Invitational will be the team’s first time running at Western Carolina. The team’s next meet will take place on Sept. 14 at the Furman Cross Country Classic in Greenville, S.C. The following weekend, Sept. 21, the team will take part in the VMI Invitational, which will be held on the same course as the Big South Championship on Nov. 2 in Buena Vista, Va.