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by Ryan MorrisStudent Contributor

Fresh off of their historic 2020 campaign, the Alice Lloyd Running Eagles are prepared to take the next step in 2021. Coach Brandon Arnold has seen both his men’s and women’s teams succeed ever since he took over the cross-country program in 2015. Since his arrival, Arnold has set the bar extremely high for both teams.  During his tenure, he has witnessed a total of three NAIA National individual qualifiers, three NCCAA DII National Runner-Up team finishes, six NCCAA All-Americans, a top-five finish in the River States Conference Championship, and more than a handful of team victories.  To say he has turned the program around would be an understatement. 

Coach Arnold gives all the credit to his runners and admires their commitment and work ethic every day.  “Hard work earns respect,” stated the Eagle mentor. “They put in a lot of hard work and I respect them a ton. They have created a family culture and they dedicate themselves to the sport. To see them happy and so excited is what keeps me going.  It’s nice to see them want to get better.  That serves as motivation to me.” 

Both clubs open up their seasons this Friday, August 27th, in the Eagles XC Opener in Versailles, KY.  In this race, the women will run a 3K and the men will run a 5K.  Returning senior Ryan Morris, the school record-holder in the 8K, noted, “This is a great opportunity for us to go out and see where we are as a team and individually before we get into the heart of the race season. We have no pressure in this race, and just need to go out and have fun, and find out what we need to work on before the fall. Once fall gets here, there’s not much time to see big improvements.”

Coach Arnold has lofty expectations for both squads this year.  Since only the team’s top seven runners will compete in the big show, both squads are going to see battles within the team to earn their spot at the season finale.  “It’s always nice when you have ten-plus strong runners on a team,” says Arnold.  “The freshmen have as good as a shot to be in the top seven as the returners do, so the team is going to be pushed by everyone.” 

The Lady Eagles placed second at the NCCAA DII Nationals a year ago, and they are considered as one of the heavy favorites to become National champions in November.  The women lost two big seniors in dependable Morgan Arthur, and 2018 NCCAA sixth-place finisher Rachel McCoy, but the veteran coach feels really good about the team as they return a lot of talent. This includes two-time All-American Carlee Salyers, seniors Brooke Vanover, Abigail Webb, Cara Acey, and Hannah Bryant.

Alongside sophomores Sarah Cecil and Olivia Inskeep, a strong recruiting class will represent the blue and white as well. “We have some very talented recruits coming in,” claimed Arnold. “These freshmen are going to have a successful year, especially with all the work they put in over the summer.” The star-studded class includes Allyson Suzann Moore, Kaitlynn Ratliff, and MaKayla Spears

Senior Brooke Vanover expressed her excitement and team motto for the season, stating, “Train hard, run hard.  It’s that simple.”

On the men’s side, practically the entire roster from last year’s NCCAA DII National Runner-up club returns and will be joined by a strong recruiting class.  The Eagles lost lone senior Noah Stevenson, who was a very dependable top-five runner and spiritual leader.  Fortunately, Coach Arnold made it very clear that not only is an NCCAA National title in sight but that the team is aiming for the NAIA River States Conference title after a 4th place finishes last year.  “We expect to compete for the RS conference title this year,” stated the coach. “We just have to put in the work.”  The Eagles return their top finishers from last year, including two-time All-American Ryan Morris, Alex Lewis, and Anthony Hidalgo.  Additionally, seniors Jacob Bush, Jacob Vanhook, and sophomores Owen Lindsey and Michah Blakenship are back in Pippa Passes for another go-around. In addition, junior Sean Cooper looks to make a heavy impact for the Eagles after dealing with injuries last season, Morris said the squad has taken notice of Cooper’s work ethic and commitment.  “I’m really proud of Sean,” says Morris. “He’s definitely used his injury from last year to fuel him for 2021.  I’ve seen him grind all summer and hold everyone accountable.  He’s going to do great things for us and I can’t wait to see him take off.” The talented freshman class includes Noah Huffman, Ozzy Norris, and Koby Profitt. 

Coach Arnold saw two runners qualify for the NAIA National Championship a year ago (a first for the Eagles), and is pleased to retain them both. “Ryan Morris and Anthony Hidalgo competed in the NAIA Nationals last season and they both are hungry to repeat that accomplishment,”

Coach Arnold has also brought in some help with him this season, as 2018 NCCAA DII All-American Brittney (Buttrey) Owens will serve both squads as an assistant coach.  “Coach Owens brings a lot to the table,” says Arnold.  “She’s a great person who serves God and her community.  It helps to have someone like her on the staff who knows how we want to do things and demonstrates how to do them the right way.”

Owens is ecstatic to be back on campus. “I’m really glad to be back at Alice Lloyd and have a role with the cross-country team. I hope to use my experiences as a student-athlete here to provide advice to both teams because I’ve been through it all.  I feel they should relate to me as a former Eagle.”