Just a junior, she's made two trips to nationals and barring injury, she's a lock to make it as an individual again in 2006. What isn't so set in stone is the Bears' chance of making it as a team, something the men's squad has done three years running.
One of four AMC teams at nationals, the men's team finished 21st overall and 20th in the final rankings. Emmert finished 20th as an individual at nationals. Paced again by Larry Gardner' and with the heart of last season's mens team back and Emmert leading the way for a young and talent-rich women's team, coach Eric Putnam thinks this could be the season both teams compete for a national championship.
As good as Gardner has been, Putnam doesn't think the senior has reached his full potential yet.
“I think his goal is to be an All-American,” Putnam said. “He has the talent to do it. He has to have a great year and stay healthy. He had a chance last year, but got sick the week of nationals and ran a minute slower than I thought he would. Our key will be to push him in practice.”
In the past, Gardner has excelled in bigger meets. The more runners, the better, said Putnam. Now, Gardner will need to be more consistent and be the best race in and race out.
“I think he can run a lot faster than he has,” Putnam said. “I wouldn't be surprised if he ran low- to mid-15 (minutes). I'm looking for Larry to be a more dominant runner. The only piece left for Larry is when he shows up he has a chance to win races. He's had the best summer of his career training-wise.”
Five of the seven Bears that ran in nationals are back. That is more important for the men than the women, said Putnam. The men run five miles and the transition from high school to college takes longer.
“I feel like that this is the first year we've had a team that we aren't relying on freshman. We have all experience up front,” Putnam said.
Scott LeMaster is another senior Putnam said has “given the program a lot of good years and lot of good races.” He, along with fellow senior Kris Jones, who Putnam said could have a breakout year, will also be counted to anchor what is still a young team.
Chris Roush, the freshman MVP last season, used his offseason to make big strides. Junior Zach Holbert brings versatility on both long and short distances after transferring from Berea. Jeremiah Morrow faltered late last season, and as a junior Putnam expects him to be strong from start to finish.
Even with the dearth of upperclassmen, Putnam said he expects freshman Tyler Hickey to contribute early.
“There's three, four guys that could finish first in a race,” Putnam said. “If they can pool their strength and work together, we can have a super year. Pack running is demoralizing (for other teams). Our men can do that. It's hard when you're 20 years old. You want to be No. 1. A lot of guys can't accept being second best on a really, really good team.”
Along with the prestige associated with trips to nationals, Putnam said the winning could cement the Bears' continued success. He's hoping that high school recruits take notice of Shawnee State's winning as well.
“We're getting to be known around the state for having a competitive program. We want to be one of the top-10 teams in the state of Ohio in distance running. We want to have a chance at anyone who is All-State. If I'm a runner and I finish 20th in the state from Akron, and I get a letter from Shawnee, I'm going to fill it out. We can get that for this program if these kids take care of what they need to on the field.”
The women may already be there.
While Emmert is the unquestioned leader and standout, two other womens runners, one a junior and the other a freshman, give Putnam as good a 1-2-3 punch as he could expect to start the season.
Trisha Krueger nearly followed Emmert to nationals, and 2006 could be the season she does. Also, Missy White is key part of a good recruiting class Putnam is counting on to help reload.
“Trisha Krueger was 14th at the AMC Championship and I'd be surprised if she didn't qualify to nationals as well,” Putnam said. “We picked up a couple of talented freshman, one locally. Missy White will contribute right away. She's probably better than anyone we lost. We've been excited about getting Missy for a long time.”
A standout at Northwest, White could go a long way toward replacing Emmert after the Bears' Star graduates.
“I'd be surprised if she didn't break 20 sometime during the season,” Putnam said.
Emmert consistently runs in the 18-minute range. Putnam said that a few really good runners won't cut it if Shawnee State's women want to go as a team. Depth is the key and valuable points are earned after the top three.
A wild card this season could be Lisa Davies. A junior transfer from NCAA Division I Youngstown and a 2003 state champion, Davies sat out a year but if she can round into form could be every bit as good as Krueger and maybe even Emmert.
“She is probably the most accomplished recruit or transfer we've had,” Putnam said. “Her high school accomplishments are far better than Star. But she hasn't competed in a year.”
Junior Jen Liming is also in the mix and freshman MVP Amber Hosier is back for her sophomore season. Freshman Kayla Hutchins was All-State twice in Division III and another newcomer, Michelle Hilborn, will be counted on for depth as well.
Still, the Bears revolve around Star.
“I would say that Shawnee doesn't have any team that is lead as well as Star leads the cross country team,” Putnam said. “She sets the bar as far as hard work and determination and a lot of maturity as far as her approach to what needs to be done. When we're having have a tough day, she's not one of those runners that works her way into it.
“She doesn't have any excuses. There's just nobody like her. By the time her career is over, there probably won't be many people that have had her success athletic wise.”
Both the men's and women's team open their season at home on Friday in the Shawnee State Invitational.
JASON R. CRISLER can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 242 or at email@example.com.