By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – For the third straight season, Tennessee Tech cross country will enjoy the comforts of home on opening weekend when it hosts the Golden Eagle Invitational on September 8 starting at 8:30 a.m. CT.
"It's special," said Tech cross country head coach Wayne Angel. "It's always good to compete in front of your home crowd, and you get to run on your home course, which you know better than everybody else because you train on it."
The meet will have a new locale this year, as teams will compete at the Putnam County Athletic Complex near Cookeville High School rather than Ironwood Golf Course, the site for the previous two years. The Putnam County course is flatter than Ironwood, which should make it easier on the competitors to clock better times, but also minimizes some of the strategic benefits for the Golden Eagles.
"(Putnam County) is a rolling course that isn't as difficult as Ironwood, and it's faster, so I'm sure the kids will like it better," said Angel. "But, we always did like Ironwood because it gave us an advantage with the hills and everything."
Sophomore Purity Sanga returns to lead Tech's women's team, which will run the morning's first race – five kilometers – at 8:30. This will be the first Golden Eagle Invitational for the 2017 freshman phenom, as the Kapsabet, Kenya native had not yet moved to the United States in time to compete last year. Sanga led TTU at every other race in her freshman campaign, was a First Team All-Ohio Valley Conference performer at the league meet, and took eighth at the NCAA South Regional race to qualify individually for the NCAA Championships.
"I think Purity is just driven," said Angel. "As a freshman, I don't think she realized how good she was. This year, I think her goals are to win the OVC, to go to nationals again, and to continue to develop into the leader that she is becoming."
The men's six-kilometer race is scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. start. Tech will be led by a four-man core of returners – Brannon Cheplak, Sammy Kipkirui, Sigei Benard and Ababu Mohamed – who consistently finished as the team's Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 runners last year, respectively. Along with incoming transfer Gabriel Kiprono from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Angel has high hopes for a squad he thinks can make some noise in the OVC.
"Those five, I think, are going to be really good," he said. "I think we have a chance to be better than we were last year, with our goal to be a top-four team in this league."
Four teams will make their way to Cookeville to be a part of the season opener, headlined by Ohio State of the Big Ten Conference and Western Kentucky from Conference USA. Also in attendance will be Division II Lane College, along with Welch College of the National Christian College Athletic Association.
The Ohio State women's team finished sixth at the Big Ten Cross Country Championships last year and seventh at the NCAA Division I Great Lakes Regional. The top returner will be senior Emily Stoodley, who placed 24th at the Big Ten meet and 30th at the regional. Her all-time 5K best was set last year at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational where she crossed the line in 17-minutes, 20.4-seconds.
The Buckeye men struggled at the Big Ten meet, taking 11th out of 12 teams. They improved marginally at the regional, placing 15th out of 26. They will also have to replace four members of last season's top seven.
Ohio State will come to Cookeville already having one race under its belt, as it opens its season this Saturday (Sept. 1) at the Queen City Invitational hosted by Northern Kentucky.
Western Kentucky makes a return trip to the Golden Eagle Invitational this year. The Tech men's team defeated WKU in convincing fashion at last year's race, compiling a team score of 42 to the Hilltoppers' 92. The top returner from a team that went on to finish sixth at the Conference USA Cross Country Championships is junior Taylor Scarbrough, who was the team's third-place finisher at every meet a season ago.
A shorthanded Tennessee Tech women's team also stacked up well with WKU at last year's race, and may have beaten the Hilltoppers head-to-head had they qualified for dual scoring.