Months of individual training followed after the spring track and field season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then came the uncertainty of a fall cross-country season at Fort Lewis College.
While football, soccer and volleyball were all canceled because of the ongoing coronavirus situation, FLC runners were delighted by the announcement that cross-country would be allowed to have a fall season. And though NCAA Division II won’t host regionals or a national championship event, the chance to compete Oct. 24 in Colorado Springs for a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship was all the motivation the Skyhawks needed.
“The team really blew me away with how the majority of them trained this year,” said FLC men’s coach Joshua Coon. “They all trained as if there was a national championship. I know I couldn’t have done that when I was 21. I didn’t have that. The RMAC carries a lot of weight in the country, so if you do well there, you know where you stand. Our team understands that and wants to compete at a high level.
“The gratitude is through the roof to have a season. We always say it is a privilege to be able to compete, but now we know it can be taken away and that being able to compete is a gift.”
The 2020 season will be reduced considerably from the original schedule, and that also has been accepted by the Skyhawks. They will get a chance to start their season while so many other student-athletes are sidelined.
It all will begin Friday evening in Colorado Springs. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs will host FLC for the UCCS Rust Buster 8K. A week later, FLC will go to the famed Adams State University Joe Vigil Invitational in Alamosa and get a chance to see the elite competition from the conference.
FLC will then have a month off before a long road trip to Canyon, Texas, where the Skyhawks will compete at the Buffalo Stampede hosted by West Texas A&M. That will be the final tuneup for the RMAC Championships.
“This is not a watered down season,” Coon said. “If we can finish top five in the RMAC this year, we go into next season and act like we belong. We have to treat every race like it’s the real thing.”
FLC is limited to only seven men and seven women at each race this year. Coon said the men’s team easily has 12 runners that could contend for the top-seven spots before the conference championship race.
The RMAC released preseason polls Thursday. A year after the FLC men finished seventh at the conference championship and was one point behind sixth, FLC was picked by the conference coaches to finish eighth this season. FLC received 91 points in the poll. Colorado School of Mines earned nine first-place votes and 161 points to edge Adams State, which received four first-place votes and 159 points. Western Colorado was third with 135 points, while UCCS was fourth with 126.
Coon said the FLC men will aim to finish in the top five in the conference this season. That leaves FLC looking up to try to knock off Colorado Christian (116), Black Hills State (107) and Metro State University-Denver (94), which were all picked ahead in the poll.
“It’s been six months of just training. I’m so ready to rip and run,” said FLC senior Steven Nez. “I’m ready to go help my team out, score as well as I can and contribute to the team. Our new guys are willing to hurt and run fast and care about the team. We are ready.”
FLC will be led by Nick Weber, a transfer from Division I Memphis who is only a sophomore this season. Weber is originally from Maryland, but he spent his summer in Estes Park and logged 100 miles a week in the mountains.
“So far, the team atmosphere is good and getting better,” Weber said. “I’m exciting to be part of something special and, hopefully, help bring the team to some success in the RMAC and on the national stage.
“I have a couple of mentors who went to Mines and Western. They’ve taught me some things about training that have brought me to this next level, and I think within a couple years Fort Lewis can be on that level of being top three in the RMAC and do some special things that nobody sees coming.”
Weber was named to the Preseason All-RMAC team Thursday, as was junior transfer John Ngaruiya of Trussville, Alabama. Redshirt freshman Kyle Shirley, a walk on transfer from Indiana State, has also shown impressive form already, as he finished second in the team trial behind Weber.
While FLC is loaded with newcomers, there is also a strong group of returning runners headlined by Cody Speece, a senior from Bayfield High School who finished 57th at last year’s regional race.
“It’s great to be back running with other people, and we are lucky to have some kind of a season going on,” Speece said. “I came into the program the same year coach Coon came in, and it has been great for me seeing the team change over time. The way coach recruits is great, and he’s got some solid dudes on this team. Each year, it’s a bran new team, but it gets stronger and you really see the progress.”
Fresh faces also fill the FLC women’s roster for 2020. Freshmen Katie Fankhouser of Lyons and Carmella Wright of Fort Collins were both named to the Preseason All-RMAC list Thursday
Fankhouser claimed a Class 2A state championship at Lyons in 2018 and helped lead the team to a second consecutive state title in 2019. She has enjoyed getting immersed in Durango and said the abundant trails will only make her and the rest of the team stronger over the next four years.
“Goal setting has been really weird this year,” said Fankhouser, who is also an elite whitewater kayaker. “It was hard to set goals going into college because I am competing in a new conference with a new team and coach. I didn’t have an idea of who my competition is even within the team. So, I’ve trained with a time in mind and came into the season ready so that whatever does get thrown my way I can take it, handle it and run away.”
FLC’s top returners include junior Angel Curley, sophomore Krista Benze and seniors Makiah Salzano and Karla de la Cruz.
“It’s different this year. Very different,” de la Cruz said. “We are running in small pods and wearing masks at practice. It makes it harder and completely different for us, but it will make us stronger. It really pushes us to focus. We are very blessed to have a season when a lot of sports don’t have a season, so I’m happy to be running. It’s my last year, so I want to finish strong.”
The FLC women were picked ninth in the preseason poll with 86 points. Adams State ran away with first place with 168 points and all 12 possible first-place votes. Colorado School of Mines was second with 148 points and the other first-place vote. Western Colorado was third with 140 points. FLC will have a good chance to surprise some teams if it can leap past Colorado Mesa, Black Hills State and Metro State to get into the top six.
FLC women’s head coach Brett Sublett said the team is motivated by last year’s 10th-place finish at the conference championships and eager to prove themselves starting this week.
For Coon, who is in his third full season as cross-country coach at FLC, this year is a chance to show the strength of the program he has worked hard to build through recruiting. The goal is to compete well in the top running conference in Division II, and he now believes this team is capable of doing just that.
“The difference between now and three years ago is that three years ago I had guys that didn’t show up on time,” Coon said. “Now, I got guys that are asking for more mileage, are hungry and doing all the little things. I’m coaching instead of managing, and that’s huge. There’s no words for it. It’s so much more fun.”