LSU second-year cross country coach Houston Franks realizes conducting a season in a COVID-19 world means the best teams may be ones that remain coronavirus-free.
“It’s going to be a strange year,” said Franks, whose team begins a four-meet season Saturday against fellow SEC members Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Ole Miss at home on the University Club Golf Course. “Not only do we have to stay healthy physically like we normally do, but we’ve got to keep our bubble tight as well and that’s going to be the ‘X’ factor not only for our team but everyone else.”
Franks enters his second season at LSU hoping both his men’s and women’s teams take significant steps.
The 2019 Tigers men’s team was eighth at the both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA South Central Regional meets. LSU’s women were 13th of 14 teams in the conference meet and 12th at regionals.
“I’m not going to be super pleased with those places again,” said Franks, voted the 2019 Coach of the Year by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. “We’re trying to get better than we were last year. I think we’re in a good position if we stay healthy.”
LSU’s men, which registered its highest finishes in more than a decade during the SEC and All-South Central Regional meets, returns its entire lineup from last season led by All-Region performers Eric Coston and Davis Bove.
Coston, the team’s lone senior and product of St. Paul’s in Covington, was also selected the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Runner of the Year after posting personal best times of 14:49.43 in the 5K and 23:32.99 in the 8K last season. He was 20th at the SEC meet and 16th at the NCAA Regionals (30:43.9 over 10K).
Bove, a sophomore from Franklin, Tenn., had a PR of 15:15.26 during a sixth-place finish at the LSU Invitational (5K). He followed that a meet later when he was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week after finishing 12th (24:38.20) at the 5K Joe Piane Invitational at Notre Dame. He was also 23rd at the SEC championships (23:35.6) and 17th at the NCAA’s Regional (30:51.6).
“Those two are the leaders,” Franks said. “For us to be good, they have to be good. What’s exciting that over the (indoor) track season that the gap between them and some of the other guys had narrowed a lot.”
Part of the depth Franks is counting on paying dividends this season is from a combination of returnees, redshirts and incoming freshmen.
Sophomores Jackson Martingayle of Virginia Beach, Va. and Adam Wise of Mandeville’s Fontainebleau High both redshirted last season because of injuries. Sophomore Cade Martin of New Orleans Holy Cross is another runner to watch.
Franks also pointed to freshman signee Will Dart of Shreveport’s Loyola Prep, Louisiana Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year winner last season, as having first-year impact potential.
Dart won the LHSAA Class 3A 2019 state title in a time of 15:45.80, 36.4 seconds ahead of his closest competitor. It was the fastest all-class time at the state championships and set a new class record. During the season, he broke three course records in 2019 including his personal-best 3-mile time of 14:57.94 to win the Ruston Invitational.
LSU’s women feature a makeover of sorts with 12 newcomers on its 24-member roster.
The Tigers have a centerpiece to build around in junior Katy-Ann McDonald of London, the team’s most consistent runner last season and All-South Region performer.
McDonald won the LSU Invitational (17:24.33 over 5K) and registered a pair of Top 10 finishes at the Joe Piane Invitational (4th, 17:06.13 over 5K) and Texas A&M Invitational (7th, 20:37.9 over 6K). She finished 17th at the SEC Championships (20:48.7) and 14th at the NCAA Regional (21.27.7).
LSU will also have experience back in local Episcopal High products senior Alicia Stamey and sophomore Adele Broussard. Stamey was 42nd (22:21.4) in the NCAA Regional and Broussard was 82nd (23:13.7). Senior Sara Funderburk of Bossier City Parkway added three Top 10 finishes during the regular season.
Franks said the team will benefit from the return of redshirts Julia Palin of Norton, Mass. and Shanya Luna of Eagle Pass, Texas. There’s also talented incoming freshmen Molly Canham of Teignmouth, England, Rachel James of Humble, Texas, Ashley Lajocies of Eagle, Id. and Shelby Poor of Coppell, Texas.
“I expect them to be dramatically better than they were a year ago,” Franks said. “Our depth is going to be infinitely better. We’ve got to execute.”
Besides opening the season at home, the Tigers will host the SEC Championship meet Oct. 31. No matter where the Tigers compete this season, meets will have a different look because of COVID-19.
“It may not necessarily be the most talented team that does well at conference,” Franks said. “It may be the one that gets to the meet with the most of their talent. That’s a little bit of a scary thought in a lot of ways. That can certainly happen.”
Teams will be spaced out three meters apart at the starting line and runners will have to wear masks/gaiters for the initial 800 meters before being able to discard them.
The finish line will also eschew long narrow chutes in favor of a wider approach to the finish line, followed by a re-masking for runners who will then be directed to designated team areas.
FALL SCHEDULE (MEN AND WOMEN)
Sept. 19 home vs Arkansas, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State
Oct. 3 at Florida State
Oct. 17 at Texas A&M
Oct. 31 home for Southeastern Conference Championship