Closing the Gap: Eddie McDaniel

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One breakout meet, according to men’s cross country runner Eddie McDaniel, is the key to potentially sparking an individual runner and in turn the rest of the squad, setting the pace for the rest of the lengthy distance-running season.

For this year’s men’s and women’s cross country teams, reveling in the past is not on their agenda. After respective ninth and 14th place finishes at the Big East Championships, the two contingents are hoping to take advantage of their youth and surprise teams at the conference meet in October.

With over a month left before the championships, the cross country teams are focusing on using every meet as a foundation-builder to solidify their pack mentality, racing together to keep scoring close.

“Last year we had a frontrunner in [senior graduate Matthew] Graham, but didn’t have the backup of a good pack for [runners] two through seven that was consistently present all the time,” said assistant coach Leah Bohr.

Graham, the highest scoring Blue Demon and overall winner of two races last season, left big shoes to fill for the rest of the men.

But as junior Eddie McDaniel has shown in the first two meets of the season, he is emerging as a frontrunner and leader.

McDaniel won last week’s 6K NIU Open in a time of 19:02.34, crossing the line in front of all other competitors from Marquette, UIC and Chicago State University. Having spent a majority of the 2011 season injured, McDaniel used his desire to return to the course as fuel to compete to the fullest this year.

“I’ve come into this season with the feeling that every meet I go into, I can win it,” said McDaniel. “The NIU Open was a lift off my shoulders – I knew I could win races, I just needed it to happen to confirm it for me. I stuck to running away from the field and the strategy worked out.”

Bohr sees great potential in McDaniel and has admired his willingness to step to the forefront of the men’s contingent.

“Eddie is one of the most coachable athletes that we have. He has a big heart and is very, very motivated,” said Bohr. “When he wants to do something, he sets his mind to it and it’ll take a lot to get in his way for it not to happen. He’s really good at taking care of himself and is very smart in his training. He’s stepping up as an example running, vocally and in any way we need him to.”

McDaniel’s performance in DeKalb, Ill. also earned him Big East Cross Country Athlete of the Week honors, but McDaniel humbly described the award as nothing more than a “nice honor.”

“I don’t really think of it as much more than that,” said McDaniel. “I have goals set for the end of the season rather than early on – most important is getting our team improved from last year. Individually, I’d like to get All-Big East, but I’m taking it one meet at a time.”

One of McDaniel and Bohr’s main goals is to keep the teams together, keeping their scores down as they finish closer together towards the front of the pack of competitors.

“We knew losing Matt Graham, we’d be losing a really good single-point scorer at the conference meet,” said McDaniel. “But we feel confident with the kids we have on the team this year – we know that even without [Graham] we’d be able to step up enough to still improve from last year, running more together rather than just letting him run off.”

Bohr and assistant coach Andrew Craycraft both feel strongly that the first through seventh finishers will change each meet, “and that’s how you get a good team.”

“No one feels pigeonholed in their role and everyone’s anxious to move up into the top three for each meet.”

The women have used the “one meet at a time” philosophy that McDaniel has implemented, staying healthy and building up their confidence for the Big East Championships.

“We have a big change this year having lost eight seniors, so we’re much smaller this year,” said Bohr. “But the ladies are doing a great job of forming their new identity and setting a precedent for what we want in years to come. They’re showing excellent leadership and they’re very young, so I think what the future holds for them is great. Going into Big East, we just want to keep everyone healthy and get each girl on the team ready to go on Oct. 26.”

Jacqueline Kasal, who dominates the women’s field, was the top Blue Demon finisher at the NIU Open. The sophomore is “really playing her part this year,” according to Bohr.

“She came in healthy and fit, and she’s making the proper steps to get where she needs to be towards the end of the year,” said Bohr.

“Freshman Molly Shiroishi is showing herself to be a force on the team – she came in as a middle-distance runner but has really proven herself and shown that she can score some points for us. She doesn’t seem to have a lot of fear even though she’s a freshman.”

“We’re really rolling with confidence. If we can maintain that through the next month, [both teams] will be going into the Big East’s running strong,” said Bohr. “We’re really just trying to make our presence known. Ultimately we don’t want to beat anyone until it really matters at the conference championships.”