EMU's next track & field coach should walk into a solid core of talented athletes. After sending three individuals to the either the indoor or outdoor NCAA Championships last year, including two who earned All-America honors, the Royals are geared up for the start the 2017-18 season this weekend.
Hannah Nichols (Fredericksburg, Va./Chancellor) was an early-season highlight last year, peaking with a sixth-place finish in the 800m at Indoor Nationals. As a freshman, she ran her PR of 2:13.83 in the national preliminaries, before running a 2:14.66 in the final.
Then at Outdoor Nationals, Connor Faint (Winchester, Va./Millbrook) was named All-American after taking eighth in the 400m hurdles at :52.98. Triple jumper Grant Amoateng (Bristow, Va./Patriot) took 13th as a sophomore with a distance of 14.16m (46ft 5.5in).
With the recent resignation of Head Track & Field Coach Brian Simpson, EMU's athletes will be led by their assistant coaches in their opening meet this weekend.
Jeremy Heizer is the most tenured of the five assistants, as the recent EMU alum enters his second season as the throwing coach. Joanna Friesen will focus on the distance runners after also assisting the cross country teams this fall.
Michael Allen will coach the jumpers while recent Broadway star Tim Miller joined the staff to coach the pole vaulters. Richard Robinson, another alum of the EMU program along with Heizer and Allen, will coach the hurdles.
Nichols hopes to be healthy after an injury limited her late in the outdoor season last spring. She was also off-campus this fall doing a cross-cultural study.
Faint looks primed for a great final season and, along with classmate Brittany Williams (King George, Va./King George), has been giving internal direction to the team during the coaching transition. He will run the 400m and 4x400m relay during the indoor season, before getting into the 400m hurdles for outdoor.
Robinson, who overlapped with Faint as an athlete during his collegiate years, expects Faint to win his fourth straight ODAC title in 400m hurdles.
"There is no doubt in my mind he'll end up sweeping ODACs again," said Robinson. "I have run with him and practiced with him, and Connor is a top notch athlete. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes back to Nationals and wins it, or at least finishes in the top 10."
Senior Austin Hart (Manheim, Pa./Manheim Central) and sophomore Darious Stover (Fort Carson, Colo./Mesa Ridge) will run the indoor 60m hurdles and Robinson expects them each to challenge for All-ODAC status as a top-three finisher at the ODAC meet.
Amoateng has been soaking up pointers from Allen, who also went to Nationals while at Eastern Mennonite and still owns program records for triple and long jump.
Allen said the junior has the ability to not only win both events at the ODAC meets this year, but also to qualify for Nationals in both.
"We're working on being consistent, to do all of the jumps consistently," said Allen. "This year he can focus not on just going, but on being an All-American."
Allen said what sets Amoateng apart, especially in a technical event like the triple jump, is his ability to learn.
"Grant has such great physical awareness," Allen explained. "He can take suggestions and implement them right away."
Friesen will continue working with the cross country men and women that she saw in the fall, and said she is excited for the transition into indoor season.
"Going from one event in the fall (6k for women, 8k for men), to multiple events in the spring is exciting, because the diversity of events is a great showcase for our different athletes' talents," she explained.
Sophomore Emma Hoover (New Carlisle, Ohio/Tecumseh) will transition to a longer distance, focusing on the 10k, while junior Laurie Serrell (Harrisonburg, Va./Harrisonburg) will move to middle distance races of the 400m and 800m.
"We are looking forward to having Michaela Mast (Broadway, Va./Eastern Mennonite) and Justice Allen (Waynesboro, Va./Waynesboro) competing again this season," Friesen said. "Those two will be most likely be our top runners. For both of them it is their first year of collegiate running, so it will be rewarding to see them in different events."
Mast finished second at the ODAC Cross Country Championships, competing for the first time as a senior.
Given how the distance runners can compete all year long in either cross country or track, a handful hit conflicts because of EMU's cross-cultural study requirement.
"We are also losing some strong performers to cross-cultural," Friesen said, "like Megan Good (Harrisonburg, Va./Eastern Mennonite), Kat Lehman (Dover, Ohio/Dover), Elizabeth Nisly (Bluffton, Ohio/Bluffton) and Abigail Shelly (Collinsville, Miss./West Lauderdale)."
Heizer expects Justin Odom (Williamsburg, Va./Menchville) to make big strides this year as a thrower on the men's side, while Toni Doss (Damascus, Md./Holston) and Clarissa White (Portsmouth, Va./Churchland) should also score points at the ODAC meets.
"I would expect Justin to finish top five or six in the ODAC in the shot," said Heizer. "He's got one of the best forms and work ethics that I've ever seen."
White also throws the shot, while Doss' best event is the weight throw.
"All three of them could earn points for us," Heizer commented. "They are working hard. We had a conversation after ODACs last season about getting into the weight room, and they've all been committed to that."
"I expect both of them to start setting PRs, and very soon," he said. "They both have been jumping very well, especially considering the limited practice time."
Sprinter Tajah Miller (Waynesboro, Va./Waynesboro) looks for a strong junior season after finishing third as a freshman and second as a sophomore in the 100m dash.
EMU's men also hope for a strong season from high jumper Jamel Howard (Leesburg, Va./Tuscarora) after the completion of the men's basketball season.
A number of promising freshmen also have the ability to make an impact this year.
Director of Athletics Dave King, who is serving as the interim Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, is confident of a good start to the indoor season.
"While the recent coaching changes have created significant challenges, I'm pleased with the leadership of the assistant coaches and team leaders," he said. "Their efforts have allowed us to proceed with plans for the opening meet this weekend at Roanoke.
"The assistant coaches will continue through the indoor and outdoor seasons in their coaching roles, providing individualized attention to the student athletes," King continued. "We are well along in the search process and are on schedule to name a new head coach for cross country and track & field before Christmas, followed by the hiring of an associate head coach of cross country and track & field to complement the head coach."
The indoor track & field season begins this weekend with the Bast-Cregger Invitational hosted by Roanoke College on Friday and Saturday. The season gets going in earnest with the Finn Pincus Invitational on Jan. 26-27.