USC Beaufort

National power Embry-Riddle set to pace field in Sun Conference cross country championships

After the Sand Shark Invitational cross country meet three weeks ago, the consensus opinion of USC Beaufort's home course winding through the Hardeeville High School campus and the adjacent Sgt. Jasper Park could be summed up in one word: Fast.

The times figure to be even faster with nationally-ranked Embry-Riddle setting the pace for Saturday's Sun Conference Championship, which gets under way with the five-mile men's race at 8:30 a.m. and concludes with the five-kilometer women's race at 9:15 a.m. The winning team and the top five individual finishers not affiliated with the top team in each race will qualify for the NAIA National Championships on Nov. 20 in Vancouver, Wash.

Embry-Riddle's men, ranked seventh in the latest NAIA coaches poll, figures to be a prohibitive favorite to win its sixth consecutive conference title, which includes the 2008 championship held on the same course in Hardeeville.

Two years ago, Eagles star Sam Vazquez set the men's course record of 25:03, and Vazquez is back along with fellow all-Americans Evans Kirwa and Russell Snyder. Kirwa, who won last year's conference title at Lake Wales (Fla.) Country Club, broke Vazquez's school record by running 24:06 at the Southeast Classic last month in Rome, Ga.

The host Sand Sharks -- led by junior Marshall Meyer, who won the Sand Shark Invitational with a school-record time of 25:36, and past national qualifiers Frank Tinsley and John Critchlow -- hope to push SCAD Savannah for second place, as well as qualify at least one individual for nationals for the third consecutive year.

"We're probably going to live and die with our fifth runner on the men's side," USCB coach Larry Kimball said. "They know they would have to run the race of a lifetime for us to be close to SCAD, and they've been working hard."

The competition for the women's team title figures to be more heated. Four-time defending champion Embry-Riddle is ranked 25th in the latest poll, but SCAD should be able to push the Eagles. The Bees won the Sand Shark Invitational, with individual champion Hannah Lieberman leading the way in 18:33.

Kimball sees his Sand Sharks having a strong shot at finishing third, which would mark the best finish for the women in the program's short history. Selena Hutson, who set a school record of 19:19 to finish third at the Sand Shark Invitational, and 2009 national qualifier Katie Mock are USCB's top female runners.

Competition for national bids will be fierce for the women, with defending champion Juline Brice of Webber International and Ave Maria freshman Marya Haegler figuring to snag two of the five spots, but Kimball said Hutson should be in the mix for a trip to nationals if she runs the way she has all season.

"I think this year is definitely the most depth the league has ever had," Kimball said. "At least on paper, Selena should be right there for the fifth bid, but that's why we run the race."

HOW THEY STACK UP

A look at the top teams in the Sun Conference cross country rankings going into the conference championship meet today in Hardeeville:

MEN

1. Embry-Riddle

2. SCAD Savannah

3. USC Beaufort

4. Webber International

5. Warner

WOMEN

1. Embry-Riddle

2. SCAD Savannah

3. USC Beaufort

4. Webber International

5. Warner

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