A lot of prognosticators saw the Atlantic Sun Women’s Cross Country Championship trophy staying in Jacksonville for another year … but not many of them predicted the UNF Ospreys emerging the ones taking it with them.
The Ospreys swooped into Spartanburg as a confident bunch that knew a title was within their reach if everyone performed at their anticipated level, even if their coach wasn’t quite as relaxed.
“I was a basket-case the whole race but tried to project a confident image,” UNF head coach Mark VanAlstyne observed. “Honestly, we performed exactly the way we wanted to. Everyone just did what they needed to do and followed the plan.”
While UNF placed four runners in the top 12, one of the key performances came from Kayla Conrad who bested her fastest 5K of the season by over a minute to finish 24th and help the team out-last runner-up Lipscomb. With Conrad anchoring the scoring runners, sophomore Shelby Kittrell did exactly what everyone expected - race at the front of the pack. Kittrell chased winner Mackenzie Howe around nearly the whole course, giving herself a chance to overtake the favorite in the final 100 meters before settling for runner-up finish.
“I didn’t feel any more pressure than anyone else,” Kittrell said. We went into the race knowing what we needed to do for each other. We like being together and connect really well.”
The arduous transition from Division II to Division I had taken its toll on the program and returning to a position as conference front-runner has taken some time. However, UNF does not feature a senior on its roster and the results of focused recruiting paid off on the course.
“It has been a process; the transition from Division II to I is worse than anyone says,” VanAlstyne reflected. “A couple years ago we started this recruiting process with Kayla and Erin…before adding Meggie and Shelby last year. The pieces have just been falling into place.”
A record seven runners broke the 18-minute barrier in this race including a pair of Osprey sophomores. Does this set the Ospreys up as the next potential women’s cross country dynasty? VanAlstyne acknowledges that it will not be easy in this new-look A-Sun.
“It scares me because I look at Lipscomb’s young crew and all the other youth in the league,” he said. “A few of our coaches were talking about the transformation the A-Sun has seen the last few years. When we joined the league, the good teams had three runners breaking 19 minutes. Now if you want a chance to win, you better have that many breaking 18 minutes. The bar has definitely been raised.”
Well at least for a little while, UNF can enjoy its perch atop the A-Sun.