STANFORD, Calif. – The upcoming cross-country season marks the second of Stanford’s Chris Miltenberg era, but it arrives without the uncertainty that gripped the teams at this point last year.
Miltenberg, the head cross country coach and The Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field, assumed his position on Aug. 27 of last year – only five days before the first meet. His assistants weren’t finalized until after the season began.
“A year makes a big difference,” Miltenberg said. “A year ago now, I didn’t know these guys yet. It’s really exciting going into this year because it’s taken shape as my team. It’s a completely different feeling than a year ago when I was just scrambling to get to know people and get a staff together.”
With a year of Stanford experience, Miltenberg has gotten to know the ins and outs of Cardinal cross country, and has tailored specific training programs to each of his runners this offseason.
“The biggest thing for me has always been individualization and being able to finetune for each of them,” Miltenberg said. “That’s the thing we probably pride ourselves the most on as a coaching staff here – we’re going to really be committed to each individual.”
If Miltenberg’s plan is successful, this type of training will have his team ready to peak late in the three-month season.
“We want to be the team that’s getting better,” Miltenberg said. “We want to be the team that’s hitting our best at regionals and nationals.”
The Cardinal women did so, finishing third at the 2012 NCAA Championships – the program’s highest finish in six years – and enter the season ranked No. 8.
Aisling Cuffe, a junior, and Jessica Tonn, a senior, are the returning veterans. Cuffe was the Cardinal’s No. 1 finisher at nationals and joined Tonn as a track and field All-America in the 5,000 meters. Stanford also will get the benefit of a full commitment from 800-meter school record-holder Justine Fedronic, who was pulled onto the team for the 2012 postseason.
A strong sophomore class will be vital as well. U.S. senior national 800 finalist Amy Weissenbach and U.S. junior national 5,000 runner-up Megan Lacy will be joined by now-healthy Cami Chapus and Rebecca Mehra.
“It’s going to be the year of the sophomore,” Miltenberg said. “They learned so much last year, had great summer training. I think they’re ready, even as sophomores, to take leadership roles and really set the tone.”
Stanford also will get help from its freshman class, which features Sophie Chase, a two-time FootLocker All-American.
“That’s the exciting part of the women’s side,” Miltenberg said. “Your freshmen can make an impact right away. We’ve got great depth.”
Kathy Kroeger provided the individual highlight for the Cardinal last year by winning the Pac-12 title and earning her second cross-country All-America honor. But Kroeger has completed her cross-country eligibility.
“Even when you graduate someone like Kathy Kroeger, you don’t say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to replace that person.’” Miltenberg said. “This team’s got to evolve and grow into being its own team with its own leadership. I’m excited about this team. They can surprise a lot of people.”
The men were as high as No. 2 after winning their third NCAA West Regional title in four years, but finished 16th at nationals. They enter this season with a No. 16 ranking.
“I think we totally lost composure,” Miltenberg said. “All of the sudden we have this No. 2 ranking, and I think these guys lost focus on the process and starting thinking about winning a national championship.
“Realistically, with how we finished last year, that’s about where we deserve to be ranked right now. I know at Stanford that’s certainly not considered ‘ranking high,’ but I think we’ve got to earn it now to get back there.”
That starts with seniors Erik Olson, Michael Atchoo and Tyler Stutzman, as well as juniors Jim and Joe Rosa.
“Those five guys have to set the tone collectively,” Miltenberg said. “And I don’t just mean the way they run, but setting the tone for how we’re going to be as a team: the hard-nosed, fighting, tough team that can handle people thinking we are down when we know we’re not down. Leadership is the most important thing.”
The Cardinal lose only two of its top seven – top NCAA finisher Benjamin Johnson and Rhodes Scholar finalist Miles Unterreiner. But Joe Rosa still is recovering from a stress fracture and his status for this season is unknown.
To fill those holes, the Cardinal will need help from some younger runners, most notably redshirt freshmen Thomas Graham and Garret Sweatt.
“Those guys are really going to have to step up,” Miltenberg said. “A lot is going to hinge on those guys really being ready to step in and contribute right away. Those will be guys who make a big impact for us this year.”
An outstanding freshman class includes the likes of FootLocker national runner-up Sean McGorty, FootLocker sixth-place finisher Sam Wharton, and Jack Keelan, who has run 8:53.82 for two miles. But Miltenberg might redshirt all of them, to allow them to strengthen themselves for the long haul of a four-year career. The decisions most likely will be made after the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 28.
Stanford opens on Aug. 31 with the USF Invitational at Golden Gate Park and leaves Tuesday for nearly two weeks of high-altitude training at Mammoth Mountain. The NCAA meet returns to its traditional home in Terre Haute, Ind., the site of four of the Cardinal women’s five titles and one of the men’s four.
“Just the fact that we wear cardinal doesn’t mean we get a top five ranking anymore,” Miltenberg said. “This, in many ways, is going to have to be a blue-collar Stanford team that’s going to earn our way back to the top.”
However, histories and legacies will not win championships, as Stanford knows all too well. The goals remain the same and the future looks promising, but Stanford has plenty of work to do.
“We have to really focus on doing the things to become a national championship team instead of just talking about being one,” Miltenberg said. “We’ve got a long mountain to climb.”
-- By Jacob Lauing, Stanford Athletics Communications intern