Coach Jason VanAlstine anticipates the team's best year ever, with several runners capable of reaching the NAIA national finals in November.
"I think we have potential to make a big jump forward," he said. "You feel the momentum turning towards being the kind of team that succeeds. We have the talent and the work ethic, and as we bond as a team, that will drive them to do more than they think they are capable of doing."
He is especially excited about a new infusion of talent on the women's team, including former Northwestern High School standout Taryn Thor (Kokomo). She was a state finalist both in cross country and track and field, and her personal record time would make her the top runner in the conference.
Thor's longtime training partner and high school teammate Karly Sprouse (Kokomo), also a highly-decorated runner, joins her on the team.
"Taryn is going to be one of the best runners in the conference," said VanAlstine. "She and Karly will be two of our best. They can take our team to another level, and bring an attitude that fits where we want to be."
Other new team members are transfer students Lauren Lane (Martinsville/Martinsville HS) and Brooke Runyon (Noblesville/Noblesville HS), along with recent Kokomo graduate Hannah High.
VanAlstine expects leadership from three-year veteran Amy McCauley (Greentown/Eastern HS), the top returning runner on the women's team.
"She knows how we do things, and will provide leadership," he said. "I think you will see her continue to progress and grow as a runner."
Veterans Breanne Robertson (Walton/Lewis Cass HS) and Emilie Hubbard (Peru/Maconaquah HS) also return, and VanAlstine expects them to make progress after hard training in the offseason.
On the men's team, Javier Vasquez (Frankfort/Frankfort HS) leads the seven veteran runners. Vasquez made history in 2013 as the first Cougar athlete to qualify for a national championship. He finished seventh in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) meet.
"He should be in the mix to make it to the nationals again," VanAlstine said. "He's really stepped up as a leader in the off season. He's taken it as a personal task to keep our new runners in the loop, and make them part of the team. He's grown a lot in that regard."
Also returning are the team's only seniors, Cody Phelps (Peru/Robert Service HS) and Mitch Padfield (Greentown/Eastern HS), along with Jon Flory (Logansport/Logansport HS), who finished 15th in the conference last season; Bradley Jakes (Kokomo/Northwestern HS), Tyler Lucas (Kokomo/Western HS), and Sam Higdon (Greentown/Eastern HS).
Having a strong core of returning runners means VanAlstine can let them lead while the newer runners adjust from the 5K high school distance to the 8K in men's college cross country.
"I don't have to lean on the freshmen from the first race," he said. "They have time to develop as runners."
Leading the incoming freshmen are Shadrach Jakes (Kokomo) and Zachary Duranto (Kokomo), who both had successful careers at Northwestern High School. Shad is younger brother to veteran Bradley Jakes. Other newcomers include Ben Willis (Cutler/Carroll HS) along with redshirt freshman Austin Smith (Kokomo/Taylor HS).
VanAlstine expects his incoming runners to continue the strong academic tradition the cross country team has built. It received the NAIA Scholar-Team award in recognition of those skills. For a team to be considered for this honor, it must have a minimum 3.0 grade point average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale. The team GPA includes all eligible varsity student-athletes.
"This shows that we're encouraging our athletes' academic success, not getting in the way of it," he said. "We were fortunate enough to win this award, but all the IU Kokomo teams are doing what we do, having study tables, and coaches monitoring how the athletes are performing in the classroom. They're doing the work they need to in order to succeed in their classes, which will benefit them more in the long run than taking time off their races."
The team kicks off the season at 5 p.m. Friday, August 29, with the Red Wolf Rumble at IU East. VanAlstine said the men's team scored its first win ever last year at that meet, and hopes to repeat that success.
The season continues with:
• 5:45 p.m. Saturday, September 6: Crimson Wave Invitational, Calumet College of St. Joseph, Hobart;
• 5 p.m. Friday, September 19: Indiana Intercollegiate Meet, Purdue University, West Lafayette;
• 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 4: Lancer Invitational, Grace College, Winona Lake;
• 5:15 p.m. Friday, October 17: #JennaStrong Fall Classic, Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio;
• 11 a.m. Saturday, October 25: NAIA Great Lakes Challenge, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Mich.
• Saturday, November 8: KIAC Championship, Point Park University, Pittsburgh
• Saturday, November 22: NAIA National Championship, Lawrence, Kan.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.