September 1, 1998
In cross country, as in life, one's name is only as good as one's reputation.
Names like Gerry Lindgren, Henry Rono and Josephat Kapkory have created a positive reputation for WSU cross country. Over the years, the names may change, but those involved in Cougar cross country are hoping that the reputation only keeps getting better.
For both men's and women's cross country in 1998, many names will be new -- from the head coach to the large freshman class -- but much of the talent and experience from the past few years will remain unchanged.
Dr. James Li -- who changed his name from Li Li when he became a naturalized citizen in May -- officially takes over the head coaching ranks of both the men's and women's programs in 1998, after spending four years as an assistant to Rick Sloan.
"I'm honored," Li said. "I've been performing the duties of head coach, but now being recognized by the administration and officially named head coach is great for my career."
The combination of experienced upperclassmen and incoming young talent should lead to a successful year for both the men and the women, Li said.
Li and Cougar fans will get their first opportunity to check out the 1998 squads -- especially the younger runners -- at the Whitworth Invitational in Spokane, Wash. September 5.
"I'm running predominantly freshmen (early in the season) to give me a chance to evaluate them and to let them run some college races to work their nerves out," Li said. "It's tough for freshmen to go out in top college races. This will be a little more low-key and good for them to work in."
The Cougars will receive another tune-up when they head to Moscow for the Idaho Invitational September 11, but after that the schedule will begin to intensify. In following weeks WSU will attend the Big Cross Invitational in Pasco, Wash. (Sept. 19), Mountain West Classic in Missoula, Mont. (Sept. 26), Bob Timmons/Pre-NCAA Invitational in Lawrence Kan. (Oct. 10) and Oregon Invitational in Eugene (Oct. 17) among others.
The Cougars will also host the third straight WSU Invitational at the Pullman golf course October 3.
"We start with meets that are least challenging and that's the nature of cross country," Li said. "The pressure is on for the end of the season."
Qualifications have become slightly easier. This year, the NCAA Championships will have a field of 31 teams and 255 total participants, increased from last year's 22 teams and 186 participants.
A Look At The Men
Last season the WSU men's cross country squad put together its finest season in more than a decade, leading to a 10th place national ranking and an unfortunate snub by the NCAA for an at-large berth to the 1997 NCAA Cross Country Championships. This season, the Cougars are looking to erase that negative finish from their memories.
"It was very bitter knowing how good we were compared to other teams and we couldn't make it to nationals," Li said. "This year we have to come back and try to do it again, with predominantly new people."
Two of WSU's top five runners from 1997 have departed, Rasto Kiplangat to graduation and Brad Treat through a transfer to his home state of Montana, but three still remain.
Bernard Lagat (Nandi, Kenya), last year's Pac-10 champion as a sophomore, leads the list of returnees. Lagat, who was named All-American after a third place finish at the NCAA Championships, is the team's undisputed leader, but will need a lot of help.
"He's definitely one of the top returnees in the nation from last year's season," Li said. "From a point-wise standpoint, he can't help the team any more at the Pac-10 race because he was the winner."
Seniors Eric Kamau (Nairobi, Kenya) and Jon Murray (Stanwood, Wash.) round out the list of WSU's top returnees. At the 1997 Pac-10 Championships, Kamau finished 37th while Murray crossed the line for 13th.
Senior Chris Charles (Bainbridge Island, Wash.) and sophomore Justin Murray (Stanwood, Wash.), seem to be the odds on favorites to round out the top five.
A host of new faces will be vying for opportunities to show their stuff this season. Freshmen Oscar Franco-Parra (Portland, Ore.), Scott Johnson (Bellevue, Wash.), Simon Kamau (Nairobi, Kenya) and Mark Wicklander (Tacoma, Wash.) are among the recruiting class Li called his best ever.
"The (freshmen) runners need to step up and compete with the front runners," Li said. "They have to be at a level of performance so that they will be competitive in our conference and at a national level. Without that level of performance, the team will not achieve its goals."
A Look At The Women
Last year's women's team, consisting of only four upperclassmen, raced to a seventh-place finish at the Pac-10 Championships at Stanford, Calif.
This year, with a team that includes four upperclassmen, three sophomores and four freshmen, Li is hoping that youth will equal speed.
Joanne Hunsinger (Fairfax, Va.) and Kim Schmolka (Port Orchard, Wash.) will be looked to for senior leadership both athletically and spiritually. Hunsinger, WSU's consistent No. 4 runner, finished 31st in her first Pac-10 Championships last year. Schmolka will be looking to rebound from her flu-plagued Pac-10 race, a disappointing finish to a season that saw her finish fourth at the Idaho Invitational and eighth at the WSU Invitational.
Coming off strong track seasons, sophomores Crystal Malgesini (Snohomish, Wash.) and Megan Maynard (Langley, Wash.) should play key roles in the Cougs' success. "They were running the kind of times you wouldn't even think about in high school," Li said. "Having that kind of track season behind them, they're confidence level must be so high."
Not only do the Cougars lack an obvious No. 1 runner, they also lack an obvious fifth runner. However, with a strong freshman class, WSU should be improved in terms of quality and depth, Li said.
Heading the way for the freshmen is Spokane's Jamie Miller, a state top-ten cross country runner and an impressive second place finisher in state finals of the 1600 and 3200. April Gagner (Yelm, Wash.) is coming off a hip injury that kept her out of the track season, but should return to the same form that placed her fifth in the state cross country meet as a high school senior.
"I'm almost certain this team is stronger than last year's, despite the youth," Li said.||