When Dena O’Brien stepped on the College of Charleston campus as a freshman last fall, no one, not even head cross country coach Amy Seago, knew she was about to embark on one of the most prolific years a Cougars runner has ever had.
Now, with added depth on both the men’s and women’s teams, Seago expects things to be much closer between teams’ top runners, O’Brien and Christian Bailey, and the rest of the pack.
“With incoming freshman Hayley McMahon, I think she will close the gap between Dena and our normal No. 2 or 3 (runners),” Seago said. “But I also see a lot of things changing on the women’s side.
“We return Kristen Wolfe, who was all-conference in cross country last year, but she was also steeplechase champions (in the spring SoCon track season). She turned the corner in track, and I expect some big things from her. With Dena being No. 5 (at the SoCon tournament) and Kristen being No. 11, if you add Hayley to the mix, and a lot of our sophomores have worked their tails off this summer, (like) Dannielle Hobbs, Elle Brewer and McKenna Nokes, who I think are going to push for that top five.
“We’ve got a lot of people who want to be in the top five. I think the dynamics change, for both men and women, this year and I think we’re in a lot better shape. Our goals for our team are much higher. Especially hosting the conference championship at home changes things up a little bit, too.”
On the men’s side, the Cougars will probably again be led by Bailey, a senior who set the school record at 8K last season, as well as posting the school’s fourth-fastest 10K at the NCAA Southeast Regional. But Seago believes that improved health, depth and a few well-placed transfer students could lead this to be the school’s best men’s team ever.
“I expect Ross Ochs, one of our transfer students (from Lewis University), to do quite well,” Seago said. “Andrew Nelson had some setbacks the summer before he came in – he stepped on a rusty nail, and there was a while when he only got 20 miles a week in – but his base is much greater than what it was last year. He’s going to be fit and ready to go; he looks good. Dave Lamberson looks good.
“We’ve got a slew of seniors on the men’s side that should really push and help Christian out up front. I don’t think we’re going to see quite the drastic (difference) between one and then two. I think Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 could be really close on the men’s side. We have 16 guys total, the most we’ve ever had on our roster, and the best depth we’ve ever had. I really foresee this team doing well. This should be out best year ever.”
While Seago expects the teams’ talent to develop and push the top runners, one of the biggest advantages of this season may come down to a matter of scheduling. The Southern Conference championship, which was at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., last season, will be run in the welcoming, and possibly sweltering, confines of Johns Island this year.
“It’s one the things where us and The Citadel would be at an advantage we run in this (weather) all the time,” Seago said. “We kind of had a counter for running at (Appalachian State) because they are at slight altitude. And it doesn’t mean a lot, but at 3,300 feet is about 15 seconds in a (five-kilometer race). So we had to train to get in oxygen debt, and feel what that discomfort is. Here, it’s going to be really hard for any other team to prepare for the humidity and the heat, and I’m very excited about that. I hope it’s a hot day.”
But, even with the new team members, the overall increase in talent and the home-field advantage, it’s tough to see anyone knocking O’Brien from her spot as the Cougars’ most impressive runner.
In her first meet as a freshman, she shaved more than a minute off her 5K time. In the conference championships, she finished fifth and was named the league’s best freshman. Two weeks later at the NCAA Southeast Regional, she shattered the school record in the 6K by more than 20 seconds.
As impressive as her cross country season was, though, she really found her legs during the spring track season. She broke seven school records. She won two Southern Conference championships. She knocked off a 22-year-old Southern Conference record when she ran the 5K in 16:46.59 at the SoCon Indoor Championships. She lowered her outdoor 5K time to 16:21.35, good enough to qualify for the NCAA East Preliminaries. And, to top it all off, last month she was named to the Division I All-Academic Track & Field team.
So, how good can O’Brien be?
“Any time that you have such a phenomenal freshman year, it’s hard because you come back sophomore year with a lot more pressure on you. We’ve talked a lot about that,” Seago said. “Physically, I think there is a lot of improvement that can be made. There are a lot of things that changed this summer that she worked on that will help her, like a cross country season that matches up with her track season a little better.
“The big thing is trying not to put too much pressure on her. She knows what she’s capable of doing. We’ve talked about goals, and we’re going to continue to talk about goals. There are big things out there for Dena O’Brien if she chooses to accept that. And her personality is such that she will.”
The Cougars race at home this Saturday in the College of Charleston Invite, running on the same course that will host the SoCon championship. They will also run in Charleston on Sept. 24 in The Citadel’s meet, before spending more than a month on the road, including racing in the Pre-Nationals in Terre Haute, Ind., on Oct. 16, before returning for the SoCon meet on Oct. 29.