October 29, 2016 … A day Manchester University cross-country and its followers will not soon forget.
When the dust settled at Hanover College's L.S. Ayres Athletic Complex, the Spartans stood atop the men's and women's team championship podiums, then second-year head coach Geoff Lambert had both Coach of the Year plaques in hand and Connor Bresnahan and Mariah Jordan, household names on the North Manchester campus for their four-year resumes, were individual champions.
"Without a doubt, one of the greatest days for me as a head coach," Lambert recently reflected.
Flip the calendar to August 2017. It is all new.
"It comes down to what our captains, the elected team leaders, can do to make everyone accountable and buy in to what we want to do (as a program)," he said. "Last year is over … we've celebrated the successes … it's time to move forward.
"(Both teams) have to find a new identity," he added. "The quicker this happens, the quicker we'll be able to address the goals we've set."
Naturally, Spartans student-athletes and the teams' fans envision another such afternoon in less than three months with the venue being in their own backyard.
"I want (the 2017 HCAC Championships) to showcase what North Manchester and Manchester University are all about," Lambert admitted. "(Our programs) have great support from the athletic and overall administration groups. We're incredibly excited to be hosting the event and, while there will be challenges ahead (in that regard), it's a great opportunity."
On paper, the route to repeating the 2016 celebration will not be an easy one.
The Spartans' men's team, led by the senior and sophomore captain duo of Blake Harris (Fort Wayne, Ind.) and Dan Baker (Okemos, Mich.), will look to the likes of the senior trio of Harris, Alek Seeley (Hobart, Ind.) and Brandon Blackmer (Gaston, Ind.) along with Micah Leininger (Timberville, Va.), the squad's lone junior, to deliver experience and guidance to a large underclassman group. Harris has shown potential for success since the day he arrived on campus underlined by a pair of top 15s at the HCACs during his career; Blackmer has signs of brilliance on his bio, racing to a pair of top 40s at the last two conference meets which earned him a place on the NCAA Division III Great Lakes regional meet roster; Seeley was in the top 60 a year ago and just outside the same mark as a sophomore at the conference meet; and Leininger has been in and out of the varsity line-up over his previous two seasons. Baker and fellow sophomore Cameron Kimmell (Michigantown, Ind.) show strong signs for the sophomore class, too, as they each had blistering starts to their careers, placing within or near the top 30 at Hanover last fall.
"I've talked (to both captains) and told them we can only control what we can control," Lambert said. "They'll both need to lead by example … putting the miles in, checking in with others on their progress and on down the line. Those types of things foster an environment of success for others. When they see the captains being accountable, there's a trickle-down effect."
The path to adding to the women's championship cadre may not be as difficult but Lambert added, "We can't get complacent."
Manchester University returns reigning league Freshman of the Year Hannah Wappes along with senior Shelby Harrell (Plymouth, Ind.) who held a similar title in 2014 after racing to a 17th-place conference meet finish and has a top 10 mark on her career resume. Looking deeper into the roster, the Black and Gold also have the likes of juniors Samina Qureshi, who joins Wappes as a Columbia City, Ind., native and co-captain, Jamie McBride (Elkhart, Ind.) and Brittany Udell (Niles, Mich.), each of whom have been fixtures in the varsity line-up as freshmen and sophomores and another large underclasswoman group led by Wappes and classmates such as Emily Ewen (Wolcott, Ind.), Grace Spencer (Madison, Ind.) among others.
"The returners and the great results they produced (in 2016) will be a nice core for us," Lambert said. "However, just like the men, Hannah and Samina will need to step forward and take ownership of their roles and get this bunch towards their identity.
"Overall, I'm just excited to get everyone back on campus and begin the process of being a little better every day," he added. "The choices need to be made on and off the course to make us successful. It can be hard to do the right thing but it has to be done. If that happens and we make the progressions that are needed, we have a good chance to mesh and perform well."
Creating more memories for the Spartans cross-country programs.