Since David Berdan has taken over the Stevenson cross country programs, the Mustangs have shown improvement each year. If things break right, this could be once again the "best year yet."
The men's program placed fifth overall out of 16 schools at last season's Middle Atlantic Conference meet, while the women, who struggled with a couple of key injuries, placed eighth after finishing sixth in 2015, that program's best ever finish. Berdan has liked what he has seen in the preseason leading up to Friday's opening meet at home, the Mustang Stampede.
"Everyone that is returning is way ahead of where they've been in the past, especially last year. The workouts that I can look back on, we're way ahead," said Berdan, who enters his fourth season in 2017.
On the men's side, Stevenson returns its top seven runners from last season's MAC meet. Junior Langston Gash earned First Team All-Conference honors with a sixth-place showing, while junior Jackson Morrow, sophomore Ryan Siegel, junior Sam Mercoli and sophomore Patrick Watson all placed inside the top 32. Junior Brett Olin and freshman Iddriss Iddriss were the sixth and seventh Mustangs to cross the line last fall. Junior Anthony Mercoli also returns after competing just three times in 2016.
With so much talent returning, the goal the men's team has for itself is to win the conference this season, but Berdan cautions that its easy to say it, its harder to do the things in order to reach that goal.
"The guys, their goal is to win MACs, but I've told them that they can't just say it, that they have to talk about how they're going to get there. That's what I've tried to get them to focus on," said Berdan.
It appears they have taken the advice to heart, as seven team members spent a month in Flagstaff, Arizona training together this summer.
For the women, junior Kelly Winklbauer returns after missing most of last season due to injury. She bounced back strong, winning the 1500-meter run at the MAC outdoor track championship. As a freshman, she placed 13th at the conference cross country meet.
Junior Kayla Bias placed 33rd overall at last season's MAC meet, leading the Mustangs with Winklbauer out. Sophomore Achol Odolla was Stevenson's second finisher. The women feature a young roster, with five of the 11 team members freshmen.
"On the women's side, I think we can definitely get into the top five, and if things break right, maybe the top three," said Berdan.
Helping prepare both teams for the MAC Championship and NCAA regionals will be an upgraded schedule that sees Stevenson travel to Iona for a meet at Van Cortlandt Park, a late September trip to the Paul Short Invitational, and then a trip to California two weeks before the MAC meet to race at the Pomona-Pitzer Cross Country Invite.
"I've upgraded the schedule a little bit each year since I started," said Berdan. "They all want to go (to California), so they're obviously going to be pushing each other in practice. I see it as an opportunity to go compete against teams we never get the chance to compete against. It's also just going to be a big team bonding experience," said Berdan.
As far as individually, Berdan thinks both programs can achieve another first, having a runner qualify for the NCAA national championship.
"Individually, I think Langston can qualify for nationals, and maybe someone else can emerge, and on the women's side Kelly has a chance."
With the Stevenson cross country programs reaching new levels of achievement each year, it didn't just happen by accident. The biggest challenge is to continue to build the program culture, and to have everyone working towards a common goal, something that is happening with both teams, in particular the men.
"I'd say it's (the culture) night and day compared to what it's been in the past," said Berdan. "When we got here, the athletes were close, but they didn't all have the same goals. The fact that they're taking ownership and holding each other accountable, that's exciting to see," said Berdan.