WILLIAMSBURG – William and Mary senior Emily Stites still can't believe the race she ran in the spring to earn a bronze medal at the NCAA track and field championships.
Before she clocked 33:26.15 in the national finals to take third in the country in the 10K, her coaches asked her if she thought she could win the race.
"And I said, 'Honestly, I don't know,'" Stites recounted. "There were some amazing girls in that race."
That may be the biggest difference between Stites, the junior track star in the spring – and Stites, the senior cross country runner this fall. The 2015 Colonial Athletic Association Women's Track and Field Athlete of the Year has newfound confidence.
"I was very humbled, very thankful to be getting that spot," Stites said of the track nationals," but this year, it definitely made me really hungry for – What can I do now?"
And that may be the most interesting question for William and Mary as cross country season gears up. What will Stites do now?
She finished 36th at the NCAA cross country championships last year after missing most of the season with an injury. An educated guess says the 2013 Southeast Region Cross Country Athlete of the Years will improve this year on last season's showing.
The Ohio native's coaches say she's the best runner to come through William and Mary's consistently successful program – ever.
"She's rewriting the record books," women's coach Natalie Hall said. "She's a six-time All-American."
William and Mary director of track and field/cross country Stephen Walsh said pressure on Stites is not pressure for her to be great; she just needs to keep doing exactly what she has been.
Stites said the less she worries about hitting certain times and just has fun in her routine, the better the results.
"I'm starting to get to a point where I'm getting more confident in achieving my dreams," Stites said, "instead of setting the bar lower and achieving small things."
Stites is excited about the crop of freshmen the reigning Southeast Regional champion women's team has added, although there's plenty of experience returned this season.
The Tribe women returned all but one of their top-seven from the 2014 team that finished 17th at the NCAAs.
Among the standouts: sophomore Regan Rome, one of the top-ranked freshmen in the country last year; regional runner-up Carolyn Hennessey, a senior; senior Meghan McGovern; and sophomore Molly Breidenbaugh.
"We're excited about the squad we have coming back," Hall said. "There won't be a lot of pressure on the freshmen and so it should be another solid season for us."
MEN'S TEAM: Like the women, the Tribe's men have completely dominated Colonial Athletic Association play the last two or so decades.
The men have claimed 15 straight conference titles, but haven't made the NCAAs since 2010.
"It's always the goal and the dream," senior Ryan Gousse said of the NCAAs. "I really just want us to focus on doing the best we can. I think we'll make a big jump this year. I don't know what that will translate to. If it happens, it happens. It's not something I'm really focusing on."
Each of W&M's top-seven runners are back this season including Gousse, who had a strong season on the track after finishing as runner-up in the CAA cross country championships last year.
The other standouts are expected to be senior David Barney, junior Trevor Sleight, junior Faris Sakallah, and 2014 CAA Rookie of the Year Mac Haight, although Walsh said the fifth spot was up for grabs.
"It looks like a pretty deep squad from like 5 to 12," Barney said. "I think it's going to be competitive to get in the top 10."
One of the highlights of both teams' regular-season slate will be an Oct. 3 trip to the Princeton Inter-Regional.
The Tribe's second meet of the season is scheduled for Sept. 18 at home.
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-345-2352.