The sun was sizzling as the Grinnell men’s and women’s cross country teams donned their uniforms for the first time this year on Friday, Aug. 30.  Grinnell had invited Cornell College and Graceland University to a short race here on campus to usher in a new season.

Photograph by John Brady

“Usually we have a little intrasquad time trial just to let us know where people are starting from condition-wise, so we thought we’d amp it up just a little bit and invite two other teams,” said women’s coach Evelyn Freeman.

Both Pioneer squads performed well. The women’s team took second place to Cornell in a tiebreaker, and the men’s team won the meet with 33 points to spare.

“What we did, it was pretty low-key,” said men’s coach Will Freeman. “For us it was a time trial. All of our workouts, our intervals and everything we do on our hard days are set off of a time trial. I use charts, 30 years of data, to know what a time means. They run a set time for a 4K, then I know what they need to do … so [the meet] was really just for that reason.”

Both teams are returning from successful seasons last year. The men’s team claimed the NCAA Midwest Conference title and three Pioneers qualified for the Division III National Championships. Two of these three individual Conference champions, Frank Canady ’14 and Sarah Burnell ’14, are back for the 2013 season.

“We’ve got a lot of returning talent from last year,” Will Freeman said. “We had one guy in that top group that graduated, but all those other guys are back. … really solid group up top and a lot of support outside of them, too.”

The women’s team also boasts a robust lineup for the upcoming year.

“We’re very deep,” Evelyn Freeman said. “In cross country, you score seven. If I had to tell you who those seven are, I couldn’t do that. We’ve got 10 or 11 or 12 people that could be in the top seven.”

One of the standouts on the women’s team is Alosha Southern ’17, who won the triangular meet by almost five seconds.

“That was unexpected and a nice surprise!” Evelyn Freeman said. “You learn a little something from each meet and that helps you for the following meets. It’s great!”

Both coaches are confident about their teams’ prospects.

“On paper, at least, they’re better than a year ago. They just have to go out there and prove it. So we’ll see how good they really are starting this weekend,” Will Freeman said.

This weekend Grinnell will host the annual Les Duke Invitational at the Oakland Acres Golf Club, starting at 10 a.m.

“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” Evelyn Freeman said. “We’ve got a number of nationally ranked teams coming. Carleton and Wartburg are always nationally ranked.”

“Since it’s our home meet, we have a lot of alums coming back. We really want to do well with home support here,” Burnell said. “This is our territory. Having the alums back, there’s just such a good energy.”

“I think everybody’s really excited about it,” Evelyn Freeman agreed. “Especially since we’re home.”

The Les Duke Invitational will be especially important for many other teams in the Midwest Conference, as well, since they will have a chance to scope out the course where they will race for the Conference title.

“The other teams are going to be looking at our course and trying to remember where things are at so that when they come back later in November they’ll have an idea of the terrain,” Burnell said.

The Pioneers are especially enthusiastic about hosting the Conference meet this year, since both teams have claimed the title multiple times in the recent past.

“There’s definitely a pressure. There’s a pressure to win it every year, because we’ve got a pretty good history at Conference. There’s going to be a lot more pressure this year, too, because we’re hosting it at home.”

The women’s team is also fueled by the memory of last year’s meet.

“Every year our goal is usually to win Conference,” Burnell said. “Last year we lost the title, so this year that’s a big motivator for us—just wanting to reclaim the Conference title.”

But Conference does not have to be the season’s apex.

“We’re always in the mix to win Conference, and that’s a big goal for us, but we want to look beyond,” Evelyn Freeman said. “It’s always a goal to look beyond Conference and see if we can get a few individuals or a team to qualify [for Nationals]. … We’ve qualified once as a team and placed seventh at Nationals. If we’ve done it once, we can try it again. It’s really hard to tell right now because it’s so early, but we’re thinking and I know we’re going to be talking about it.”

“Two weeks after Conference is Regionals, and if that goes well, you go to Nationals. That’s what’s on everyone’s mind,” Canady said.

Burnell also hopes to return to Nationals this year.

“You’re running with the fastest people all over the nation in Division III.  You’ve already made it. It’s so exciting and fun and positive,” Burnell said.

With all the odds in their favor, perhaps such a future is a real possibility for this year’s Pioneers.