The Howard Community College men's cross country team was able to relax at the junior college District championships last weekend in New Jersey because it used the meet as a tuneup for a bigger event.
But the Express must be at its best tomorrow to capture top team and individual honors at the National Junior College Athletic Association Nationals at Finger Lakes Community College in Canadaigua, N.Y.
Howard is ranked fourth in the nation for Division III schools by the NJCAA Cross Country Coaches Association.
"Districts is supposed to be two weeks before nationals and this year it was one week. The course was pretty brutal and since we already qualified, we decided to just run through it," said HCC coach Steve Musselman of his squad's seventh-place finish among 11 schools at the districts. "If it was two weeks before, we would have run hard. I expect the course with the barriers and weather conditions to be pretty brutal again. I just couldn't see us doing it back-to-back weekends."
As a team, the third-year coach hopes the Express can finish among the top five. Musselman expects several runners, including freshman Joe Rankin and sophomores Andrew Younkin (Centennial) and Dave Strats (Atholton), to compete for All-America honors. Runners placing in the top 25 in the 8K or 5.3-mile race earn the honor.
"All three have a shot of making it," Musselman said. "We finished fifth last year and I was very pleased with that considering some of the guys had a bad race. This year, I am looking to be in the top five again. The first three teams are very strong and I think we have an outside chance at fourth.
"This year's team is more focused and serious. We are ranked in the top five and we have to prove we belong there. We have to be better prepared than anyone else."
Rankin, labeled the team's top competitor and runner by Musselman, made an immediate impact this year. At the Tidewater Invitational, a meet featuring four-year schools and junior colleges, Rankin finished 16th in 27 minutes, 48 seconds. The 18-year-old brought state cross country championship experience with him to the Columbia campus from Glenelg, so the first-year success was not unexpected.
"Being a freshman and moving up in distance to a 5-mile race can cause a little apprehension at times," Musselman said. "He has adjusted well for that from high school. I knew he had potential. He has come quite a ways since the first part of the season and has shown steady improvement. He's my top runner right now, and he could definitely place among the top 25 in this race."
Younkin, being recruited by Lebanon Valley College, Salisbury State and UMBC, must set the pace in the race. "He sets the standards for the rest of the guys," Musselman said. "He has a good chance of making All-American status, too."
But the most may be expected from Strats, who was named an honorable-mention All-American last fall at the nationals in Wichita, Kan., where he placed 24th and ran the course in 30:20. Strats, however, is running faster this season.