FLORENCE, SC – The Francis Marion University men’s and women’s cross country squads will open their 2004 season on Friday (Sept. 3) when they compete in the Roly Poly Invitational hosted by the College of Charleston.
The meet will be held at the Dixie Plantation, 20 minutes south of Charleston, and will begin with the 2-mile women’s race at 6 p.m., followed by the 5,000-meter men’s race at 6:30 p.m.
The FMU men return four lettermen from last year’s squad that placed fifth at the Peach Belt Conference championships and 13th at the NCAA Division II South Regional Meet. The returnees are seniors Ryan Plexico and Ezekiel Koech and juniors Steven Creek and Bobby Sears.
Plexico, who has earned the team’s most valuable player award each of the past three years, was the team’s top runner in six of eight meets last fall, and he recorded five top-10 finishes, including first-place honors at the Erskine College Invitational. His performance at the Overton’s/Pirate Invitational Meet at East Carolina University on Oct. 4 was the fastest time (25:47) for an 8,000-meter race by a Patriot runner in 10 years, and the 15th fastest in school history. He finished 19th at the PBC Championship Meet and 48th at the NCAA Division II South Regional Meet.
Koech twice led the Patriot finishers in 2003, including a 17th-place showing at the Peach Belt Meet. He owns a personal-best time of 25:32, recorded while he was a member of the Harding University program.
“Depth was a deciding factor for last year’s men’s squad,” said fourth-year head coach Mark Bluman, “but we have addressed that issue this year. We have four quality returnees, in whom we have experience and leadership, while adding a crop of six talented newcomers.”
Bluman pointed to freshman Dmitri Virnig, one of the state’s top runners last year at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, as one of the program’s stars of the future. “He is runner that will benefit from the experience of our returnees.”
Other newcomers include sophomore Chris Stokes, who attended FMU in 2003 but did not run cross country, and freshmen Josh Bustamante, Ariel Ortiz, Joshua Sears (Bobby’s brother), and Seth Willis. Both Sears and Ortiz come from high school programs where they ran under the direction of former FMU athletes: Sears for Mark Bedenbaugh at Pelion (S.C.) High School and Ortiz for Rebecca Coffman at Falls Church (Va.) High School. Bustamante comes to Florence from Swansea, Ill., but he attended Crestwood High School in Sumter between 1999 and 2002.
“I am excited about this men’s team, and feel as though we can possibly move up in the conference after back-to-back fifth-place finishes,” said Bluman. Over the past three seasons, FMU is 43-11 in head-to-head competition with other in-state Division II schools. Eight of those losses were to USC Upstate (formerly USC Spartanburg), which recently dropped its men’s cross country program.
The women’s roster features three returnees: junior Nicole Hoeppner, and sophomores Megan Coy and Erica Woo.
Hoeppner, last year’s team MVP, was FMU’s top runner in all eight meets last fall, including a win at the FMU Invitational last September. She was 18th at the PBC Championships, where the Patriots finished eighth in the team standings. Hoeppner posted four sub-20:00 times last fall (for 5,000 meters), including a program-best time of 19:10 at the Overton’s/Pirate Invitational Meet at East Carolina University on Oct. 4.
As a freshman, Coy broke the 21-minute barrier with a personal-best time of 20:42, while Woo, whom Bluman called his most improved runner in 2003, posted her personal-best time of 21:02 at the PBC Meet.
Freshmen Katie Grotzinger and LaKisha Johnson, both products of Sumter High School, join freshman Codi Knock (Wapakoneta, Ohio) on the Patriots’ roster.
“The three freshmen mirror the abilities of the three returnees,” Bluman said. “With only six runners, staying healthy is a key to our success, but I am equally excited about the women’s prospects for 2004.”
“Both squads have trained extremely hard in the preseason, including working out in warmer weather earlier in the afternoon.”
Bluman’s charges will compete in five regular-season meets leading up to the PBC Championships on Oct. 23 in Greenwood, S.C.