Men’s and women’s cross country

By Gus Bode

Matt Sparks, SIU head coach for both the men’s and women’s cross country teams, has become an organized man since taking the reins of both programs last summer.

Sparks said he realized each team would require a different approach and thorough planning to ensure success in the 2004 season.

This will be Sparks’ third year as the women’s cross country coach, leading them to a second place finish in the Missouri Valley conference last season. Coaching the men’s team at SIU has been a new experience for him.

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Although this will be the first year Sparks has coached the men’s team, this isn’t his first experience coaching men’s cross country. He started his coaching career for the men’s program at Indiana University, his alma mater, as a graduate assistant.

“I have to change my thought process throughout the day,” Sparks said. “Getting to know the team members as people is the key to making them run fast.”

Both squads go into the season with high rankings in the MVC preseason polls. The women were ranked second in the poll while the men are tabbed third going into competition after finishing the 2003 season in fourth place in the MVC. The polls are voted on by MVC cross country coaches.

The women’s team has depth in a young but capable lineup. Noa Beitler is the lone senior and standout leader of the team.

Brittani Christensen, a sophomore, said Beitler often practices individually in the mornings due to her class schedule but makes it to team practices several times a week.

“When she’s there you can tell she’s been here for four years,” Christensen said. “You can tell she has experience.”

In 2001, Beitler became the fastest 800-meter runner in SIU history in just her fourth collegiate meet. She won the 1600-meter indoor MVC Championship and placed second in the 1500-meter outdoor event to receive all-MVC honors.

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Last season Beitler won both the 800-meter and mile MVC Indoor titles, placed sixth in the 800-meter run at the first annual NCAA Mideast Regional and advanced to the NCAA National Chamiponship Meet.

The women’s team of 2004 is almost identical to that of last season’s. Freshmen Jessica Ordway and Shelby Brice arrived at SIU this year to round out the already solid lineup of runners.

“We can make up for the loss of Beitler in the next year with the depth of our sophomores and the freshmen we’ve picked up,” Sparks said.

The men’s cross country team, like the women, also returns with most of the 2003 runners. They will attempt to improve upon their fourth-place finish in the conference last season, and Sparks is confident they will finish higher this year.

Upper classmen make up the core of the men’s team. Senior Tony LaChiana will be the man to watch this season after a productive summer of practice, according to Sparks. Eli Baker, also a senior, was the number two runner his freshman year and will contribute to the Salukis.

Notable transfer Rob Duncan comes from Rend Lake College to lend support to the Salukis. The junior will likely fill the spot vacated by the graduation of Doron Giat.

The Irish duo of Joe Byrne and Diarmuid Grant, a junior and sophomore respectively, will also lend a hand – or foot – in the 2004 season. Sparks said Byrne will be one of the Salukis’ top runners and Grant has been performing well in preseason practices.

The Salukis will host the first meet of the season Friday against Southeast Missouri State and Murray State. The women’s competition begins at 5:00 p.m., while the men start at 5:30.

Although this is the first meet, Sparks said it is being viewed more as a preseason event for the men’s and women’s teams.

“We’re going to try some different tactics,” Sparks said. “We are stressing to the teams to run as a group and work together.”

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