Expectations are high around the men's and women's Central Connecticut State cross country programs ahead of the 2021 season.
Both Blue Devil squads bring back loads of talent following a 2020 season that saw the women's team claim the Northeast Conference championship for the third year in a row, while the men were edged out of the top spot by two points.
With all signs pointing toward a return to a normal fall season, head coach Eric Blake is happy with the look of his teams a week into practice.
“So far, I like our teams,” Blake said. “They have a good work ethic. You can see they have done their summer training which is really important in cross country because the championship season is two months away. The majority have put in the work over the summer.”
On the women's side, CCSU appears to be the NEC favorites once again with impressive top-end talent in seniors Angie Rafter and Ashley Dana. Rafter won the NEC meet in 2018 and 2019 while Dana took first place last year.
“Our top five is returning from last year,” Blake said. “We have the capability of being a really great team. We're just trying to be the best team come October and November.”
Last week, the Blue Devils were voted to finish first in the NEC preseason coaches’ poll with eight first-place votes. While Blake expects another strong season from his group, he admitted there are a lot of unknowns throughout the rest of the conference.
“We have no idea what other teams are bringing in for freshmen,” Blake said. “We always expect to have a great day on those championship meets and we usually do, but having that mediocre day and still pulling through is what we're preparing for. That's a big mental component too because it does come down to that one day.”
On the men's side, last season's heartbreaking loss to Wagner in the championship meet seems to be fueling the Blue Devils this time around.
“There's a little bit more expectations on the table and that's a good, thing” Blake said. “I told my men's team, we just have to get in the best shape possible for October.”
Juniors Eddie Nicholas and Elias Field return as the No. 1 and 2 runners for CCSU, respectively, and Blake hopes they can continue to push each other throughout the season.
“They came from the same high school, I almost look at them as brothers,” Blake said. “They have a friendly rivalry.
“Yankarlos Diaz was our third runner and now he's closer to Elias,” Blake added. “Jacob Ireland and Greg McGuire are also two of our top returners.”
Newington native Sean Oushana is the only local athlete on either of the Blue Devils programs and also serves as the only senior on the CCSU men's team.
The Blue Devils were voted to finish second in the preseason poll with a pair of first-place votes, while Wagner received eight to come in at No. 1.
With the amount of experience coming back for both teams, Blake believes that could benefit everyone in the long run.
“Hopefully that experience will help in races but also in training,” Blake said. “I learned that when an athlete becomes a junior or senior, I kind of know what to expect from each athlete. The key is to get everyone there healthy. Every season there are hiccups along the way and how we adjust is key.
“There's a confidence that's there for both sides,” Blake said.
Central kicks off the 2021 campaign at the Marist Season Opener on Sept. 4 and don't expect any runners to be shelved.
“We do plan to run everyone that day,” Blake said. “In years past we'll sit out a couple of our top athletes who we don't feel need it. It's been so weird, most teams have had just one meet in two years. That mental building block is important, so we plan to bring our top runners over there.”
Ryan Ames can be reached at 860-801-5094 or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.