BURNABY — Happy Trails.
It’s a song much too dated to register anything resembling a pulse from today’s generation of student-athletes.
Yet as cross-country runners at every rank of the NCAA, including those competing at the Div. 2 level at Simon Fraser University, prepare for the mass resumption of their competitive racing schedules this weekend, they might be surprised to discover that whistling the old Roy Rogers’ tune brings an added jump to their stride.
“It’s our first competition in two years, so we are excited,” confirmed longtime SFU head coach Brit Townsend of the fact that her women’s and men’s teams are set to compete stateside on Friday at the San Francisco State Invitational.
“There is a lot of protocol, a lot of restrictions to get there,” added Townsend as Simon Fraser prepares for its flight to California’s Bay Area, “but once you get on the course, everything goes back to being the same. You go out there and perform.”
After a cancelled fall 2020 season, along with a cancelled winter indoor season in ’20, and cancelled outdoor track and field seasons in both ’20 and ’21, that is music to ears of collegiate harriers far and wide.
At Simon Fraser, it also signals the re-birth and continued growth of a cross-country program Townsend has successful shepherded forward from former national championship status in the NAIA to national recognition at the NCAA Div. 2 ranks.
Despite having not competed in 2020, the SFU XC women’s team has been recognized as one of the top programs in not only its own Great Northwest Athletic Conference, but the West Region, as well as in the national rankings.
Perhaps mildly surprising was Simon Fraser’s placement at No. 11 overall in the NCAA’s initial preseason ranking.
Yet it all looks pretty solid considering SFU is also ranked No. 2 in both the West Region and in the GNAC.
The SFU men, while not ranked nationally or in the West Region, were nonetheless tabbed at No. 2 in the GNAC.
Coming off an extended period of traditional competition, Townsend was taking the stance Tuesday that ranking numbers needed to be acknowledged but not trumpeted.
From her corner, there was a gauge she felt infinitely more comfortable getting behind.
“I prefer to be the underdog… I think 11th is aggressive,” she said of sitting one spot behind the Walsh University Cavaliers of Canton (OH) and on the precipice of the national Top 10.
“I am not going to comment on it,” added Townsend, “but what I will say is that I have faith in my girls and my guys that they will do everything possible to get to the national championships, especially after this hiatus.”
The women’s team at SFU is one of the school’s most decorated athletic programs, and based on the high-end senior talent, a somewhat-inexperienced but rising core of underclassmen, and a two-year freshman class bursting with ability, the potential is certainly there to exceed the No. 11 ranking when all is said and done.
Senior service will come from Olivia Willett (Port Coquitlam-Riverside), the lone 2019 national championship race qualifier; as well as graduate student Alison Andrews-Paul (Ohope Beach-New Zealand), a Div. 1 transfer from Baylor, with whom patience is most certainly a virtue.
“Olivia did some of our performance trials (on the track) in spring, but it’s in cross-country where she rises,” said Townsend of Willett, now two years more experienced than the runner who, en route to nationals, finished third at the 2019 West Regionals. “She has come to camp in good shape and she and Alison are going to work well together.”
The success of the 2021 team, however, seems ultimately to depend on just how big a step the rest of the team’s veteran core of six returnees are ready to take.
Senior Claire Noort (Surrey Christian, TWU transfer), juniors Emily Chilton (New Westminster) and Megan Roxby (West Vancouver), and sophomore Grace Chalk (Langley-Walnut Grove) have all taken steps over the 20-plus months their sport has been shelved from live competition.
If their training translates, that’s where the gains will show most.
There is also a large freshman class (comprised of 2020 and ’21 recruits), and from that group some names to watch are Milena Kalisch (Burnaby-St. Thomas More), Ella Marion (Calgary-Western Canada) and Kate Cameron (Nanaimo District).
The aforementioned nine, in fact, make up the women’s contingent which will toe the starting line Friday in San Francisco.
“Outside of Alison and Olivia, it’s a young team in a lot of ways,” said Townsend, “not so much in their age, but with regards to their cross-country experience. But give us maybe not the first week or training, or the second, but a month more… they are extremely motivated. We need to get some training and racing under our belts and I think we’ll be even tougher on the women’s side.”
In senior Aaron Ahl (Calgary-William Aberhart) and freshman Charlie Dannatt (North Vancouver-Handsworth, UBC transfer), Simon Fraser has a pair ready to set the pace for the rest of the team.
“I think we are led by two amazing athletes in Aaron and Charlie,” Townsend said, pointing to the pair who, while not attaining the 3:35 Tokyo-qualifying standard in the 1500m this past June at the Canadian Olympic Trials in Montreal, nonetheless set the kind of personal bests which suggest the performance each is capable of showing on the trails as soon as this weekend.
Ahl finished third in 3:43.52, and Dannatt fourth in 3:44.33. As well, SFU alum Cam Proceviat, a mentor of sorts to the pair, placed second (3:43.37), behind overall winner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot (3:40.78).
“Did it have the same depth as it normally would have had?” asked Townsend. “No. They ran no heats, a couple of top people didn’t come back into Canada, and they didn’t make standard for the Olympics. But they ran huge personal bests and Cam is a good mentor for them. He trains with them and they push each other… all three of them.”
Along with Ahl and Dannatt, the rest of the nine-member SFU men’s traveling team this week: Sophomores Ephrem Mekonnen (Burnaby South), Sebastian Brinkman (Bellevue (Wash.)-Interlake) and Tomas Chapman (Douglas College transfer); freshmen Aiden Good (Carstairs (Alta)-Hugh Sutherland), Scott Arndt (Waterloo (Ont.) Collegiate), Braden Ahl (Calgary-William Aberhart) and Jose Castro (Brampton-St. Thomas Aquinas).
Townsend said the most important aspect of training throughout the long journey to Saturday’s starting line was refusing to yield from the training that would accompany the typical season of cross-country, and indoor and outdoor track and field.
“I made sure we treated every part of the annual training plan like we would if we were having a full competitive season,” she remarked. “I tried to keep them motivated looking long term to make sure they were checking all the boxes through the year that we would normally check off.”
To that end, Townsend staged, from late March through early May, what she labeled as ‘in-house performance trials’, six weeks of competition entirely between SFU athletes, all sanctioned by B.C. Athletics and producing results by which athletes could not only gain a better understanding of where they stood, but use as qualification for upcoming meets.
“It worked,” she said. “We had 44 personal bests set. Now, I just want to go out this weekend and get one under our belts.”
Happy Trails, indeed.
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