By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- When they open the new season, one that will have new challenges, the Shorter University men's and women's cross country teams will do so running down a new path the program is taking.
With the Hawks and Lady Hawks about to compete for the first time on the NCAA Division II level and as a member of the Gulf South Conference, they are now part of SU's effort to improve the combined ranks of the cross country and track teams.
"We looked at what Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Auburn were doing and we modeled our program after theirs," Shorter Director of Track and Cross Country Scott Byrd, who led the Hawks to back-to-back NAIA national outdoor track championships, said about inclusion of the fall long-distance runners into the overall picture. "I think we'll be stronger. Instead of having to recruit for two separate teams, we can recruit for just one. It enables us to recruit better. For us to be able to do what we want to do in Division II, it has been a huge help."
Giving the harriers even more help will be Shorter graduate and two-time All-American Martin Hernandez, who joined Byrd's staff as a graduate assistant in the spring and will be in charge of the distance runners during cross country season.
"We know what he's capable of getting out of the men and women," Byrd said of Hernandez. "When he took over our distance group in the spring, (the men) contributed 34 points to help us win the outdoor national championship."
The good news for both teams is that each boasts veterans who have proven they can be successful throughout the year.
Case in point – seniors Daniel Sorenson and Carlos Perez, who played keys roles going the distance during the 2011 cross country season when Shorter came away with a program-best eighth-place finish at the NAIA national championship, and this past spring when the Hawks successfully defended their national title. During Shorter's defense of the crown, the pair from California turned in All-American performances with Sorenson winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase national championship and Perez running a leg in the Hawks' 4x800 relay team that claimed a second place national finish.
"They are definitely big leaders for us," Hernandez said of Sorenson and Perez. "They will be our go-to guys because they've been at the top and they can show a group of talented underclassmen what it takes to get there."
Ready to benefit from the seniors are four runners who round out the six-man team – sophomores Cory Cowart of Grayson, Derek Douglas of Dallas and Evans Tanui from Kenya, and freshman Jihad Ragge of Marietta.
"It will be hard for the younger guys to pick it up at this next level. They all have to depend on each other and motivate each other," Hernandez said of the younger runners, adding that in addition to having two seniors serve as mentors the Hawks are also learning and being motivated by Oscar Ogwaro, who after closing his All-American career at Shorter this past spring is running and training with the both teams.
When the women toe the starting line in Shorter's season opener for both teams on September 1st at the Berry College Invitational, the Lady Hawks will do so without a senior on the roster but with a key core of experienced runners who helped the team post a 26th finish at last year's NAIA national championship.
Juniors Shea Spicher of Lilburn and Katie Rutledge of Taylorsville secured points for Shorter in 2011, as did sophomore Ashley Logan of Jasper. Joining them in Shorter's quest to make the transition to the Division II level will be juniors Rachel McDaniel of Battle Ground, Wash., and Breiona Badie of Albany, sophomore Hannah Turner of LaFayette, and walk-on freshman Torri Hunle of Covington.
"For the first time I've been here," said Hernandez, "the women's team is the most experienced team Shorter has had."
"We want to put ourselves in position to win the Gulf South championship and go after a Division II national championship," Byrd said about the goal the Hawks and Lady Hawks are after.
What makes running at a higher level easier is the fact that over the past few years Shorter has run against numerous NCAA Division I and II teams and making a strong account for itself.
"The biggest difference for us is our conference," said Hernandez, noting that the GSC has strong cross country programs that include West Florida, Valdosta State and Alabama-Huntsville. "It will be a lot more competitive for us. But we knew that in the future there will be bigger and better things we want to do."