2021 Season Preview: Vanderbilt Cross-Country

New coaches and experienced runners will look to lay the foundation for the program’s success.

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Both the Vanderbilt men’s and women’s cross-country teams return key seniors and have a dynamic new coaching staff. (Vanderbilt athletics).

Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

The Vanderbilt cross-country teams open their campaigns Friday at the Mizzou Opener in Columbia, Missouri. With many top runners returning on both the women’s and men’s sides, the Commodores appear poised to have a successful fall season.

The main storyline this season is the new coaching staff. Director of cross-country Althea Thomas and assistant coach Michael Porter will be tasked with replacing retired Vanderbilt stalwart Steve Keith.

Thomas had a distinguished running career at LSU, where she was a member of NCAA outdoor championship teams in 2000 and 2003 and a national qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles in 2003. Since her time at LSU, Thomas has assumed assistant coaching roles at UAB, Purdue, Kentucky and Clemson. She most recently worked as the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at UGA, where she earned the 2021 USTFCCCA South Region Men’s Assistant Coach of the Year award.

Porter comes to Vanderbilt after a short stint as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. He was an assistant coach at Clemson from 2014-19, during which time the Tigers earned two ACC team titles.

The student-athletes have taken note of the energy Thomas and Porter have brought to the program and are excited to work with their new coaches.

“They’re fantastic. I mean, I don’t know if we could have found better coaches,” men’s senior Nick Laning said of Thomas and Porter. “They just seem all-in, super committed to helping us be the best we can be as a team and as individuals. I’m super pumped to have them here.”

Women’s senior Grace Jensen has appreciated Porter’s data-driven approach to designing workouts and is noticing the subsequent effect on the team.

“So far, I’ve just loved all our workouts,” Jensen said. “I can definitely see everyone improving every day, which is really nice.”

There is room for both teams to improve upon their performances from last year’s SEC Championships, where the women finished sixth and the men placed 11th. But it won’t be easy to move up the rankings in the best running conference in the nation. To key Vanderbilt’s success, Thomas aims to establish a culture full of accountability and free of complacency.

“We’re all holding ourselves accountable. Coaches holding athletes accountable. Coaches holding coaches accountable. Athletes holding coaches accountable. Athletes holding athletes accountable…to what we say we want to do and what we know we’re capable of doing,” Thomas said. “And so, personally, that’s a goal of mine—to shift that culture, so that we all can pick a fight with second place.”

Thomas noted that she and the Vanderbilt runners have a desire to attain success immediately. But she referenced patience as a key to achieving Vanderbilt’s goals for this season and beyond.

“[Understand] that it takes more than a day,” Thomas said. “It takes more than a week. And it has to be a commitment, day in and day out. You have to keep your eyes on what’s down the line.”

Women’s roster boasts strength in numbers

The 2021 women’s roster includes an astounding 19 student-athletes, up from 14 on the 2020 squad. Vanderbilt welcomes five freshmen runners—Gigi Clifford, Emma Curry, Cameron Fawcett, Ella Lambert and Julia Rosenberg—and is further bolstered by the return of fifth-year senior Gillian Mortimer and the addition of graduate transfer McKenzie Yanek.

“It’s just very exhilarating, getting to run with a giant group of people,” Jensen said. “And I think so far, everyone’s training [has] really improved since years past and it’s very helpful, very exciting.”

Jensen finished as Vanderbilt’s top runner in every meet of the 2020 season, and she will head the roster again in 2021. She aims to crack the individual top ten at the SEC Championships after finishing 13th last year and will ultimately look to lead the team to an NCAA Championships appearance. Jensen is taking a simple but effective approach to her senior role.

“[I try] to lead by example and go into every workout, race just competitive and with a positive mindset, and hopefully [have] that rub off on other people,” Jensen said of her leadership style.

A substantial gap existed between Jensen and the Commodores’ second finisher in the final two meets of the 2020 season. Sophomore Lainey Phelps finished 1 minute, 4 seconds behind Jensen at the Blazer Classic, while Mortimer trailed Jensen by 38 seconds at the SEC Championships. More runners will need to place within close range of Jensen for the team to flourish this fall.

Yanek is an intriguing candidate to do just that. She comes to Vanderbilt after graduating from the University of San Francisco. Prior to her time out west, Yanek competed at Alabama, where she made the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2016 and was First Team All-SEC in 2017. Yanek’s experience and talent could prove key for the Commodores.

“She’s someone that is expecting and showing in the first few practices that she can be a true leader on this team,” Thomas said.

Several other Commodores have flashed the ability to hang with the top runners. Phelps could certainly make a leap in her second year, and Mortimer and senior Ana Wallace could provide impact performances while likely rounding out Vanderbilt’s scoring five.

In any case, the team’s depth will prove beneficial as Vanderbilt attempts to finish higher than its No. 9 ranking in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

“We have several other veterans and freshmen sprinkled in between that are learning to run with [Jensen and Yanek] and find their potential,” Thomas said. “And so, you know, the women look exciting.”

Men’s team displays tight bond

Though ranked tied-for-last in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, the Vanderbilt men’s team appears primed to improve upon their 11th-place finish at last year’s SEC Championships. They return their top three runners from the 2020 season in Laning, senior Matthew Estopinal and fifth-year senior Caleb Van Geffen, and their three freshmen additions—Zach Hodges, Philip Metcalf and Andy Niser—have already showcased their maturity and devotion to the task at hand.

“The younger guys are awesome. They’ve all bought in and really seem to really want to be the best they can be,” Laning said. “Everyone’s so committed already, ready to attack it.”

Most of the men’s runners trained together over the summer, and it seems to have paid off. The squad displays a strong chemistry that will be useful over the course of the season.

“The men show a very intangible characteristic of togetherness and unity which is going to prove to be very beneficial for cross-country and training,” Thomas said.

Laning added that maintaining this closeness—in terms of both commitment and actual speed—will be important down the stretch. 

“When you run together and are right next to each other in races and helping each other you can accomplish way more than any one person can individually,” Laning said.

Estopinal, Laning and Van Geffen will retain their standing at the top of the roster, and based off of last year’s performances, senior Jonah Bird and sophomore Corey Pacernick will be Vanderbilt’s final two scoring runners. But things could change as the freshmen flash their potential and experienced runners continue to develop. Regardless, there is a buzz within the men’s camp.

“Our biggest goal as a team is to make it to nationals,” Laning said. “And I think this season we have a good shot of doing it.”

Commodores set sights on championship meets

The women’s and men’s teams will follow the same meet schedule in the fall. Vanderbilt begins the season on Friday, Sept. 3, at the Mizzou Opener, where the Commodores will run a shortened version of the 2021 SEC Championships course. Though the meet location carries extra weight, Thomas re-emphasized the importance of adhering to the team’s long-term visions.

“It’s going to be one small piece of the puzzle,” Thomas said of the meet. “We are looking at it like, yes, this is an opportunity to get to know the course, become familiar with it, so that when we return down the line we know exactly what to do. But it’s going to go in line with the training.”

Vanderbilt will host the Commodore Classic two weeks later on Sept. 17. The race will run through beautiful Percy Warner Park and offers the Commodores a chance to show out for a home crowd. Vanderbilt will then travel to Notre Dame for the Joe Piane Invitational (Oct. 1) and UAB for the Blazer Classic (Oct. 16) in their final tune-ups of the 2021 season.

On Oct. 29, the Commodores will return to Columbia for the SEC Championships. There, they will look to outperform SEC expectations and qualify for the NCAA South Regionals, held in Huntsville, Alabama, on Nov. 12. If they do well enough at regionals, the Commodores will advance to the NCAA Championships (Nov. 20) in Tallahassee. 

Running in the final possible meet of the year is an expressed goal for both teams. With a strong culture newly introduced by coaches and embodied by the student-athletes, there is optimism that Vanderbilt can reach great heights in the 2021 cross-country season.