Last season, the Alpena Community College cross country team got its feet wet as a first-year program.
Now the Lumberjacks want to take a major step forward in their second year and they'll get their first chance today when they open the 2013 season at the Bulldog Invitational at Ferris State University.
It's time to go big or go home. These kids have a lot to prove. They're a bunch of small-town kids and we're very rural," ACC coach Mark Jacobs said. "(We want to take) a huge step. We finished 9th out of 12 in the region (last year) and I think anything under top-3 is not where we want to be."
News Photo by James Andersen
The 2013 Alpena Community College cross country team is: Coach Mark Jacobs, Erin Wright, Katie Brownell, Jon Fitch, Zane Forintos, Brent Heberling, Travis LaCross, JD Niergarth, Jake Spaulding, Luke Spaulding, Andrew Sumerix, Kyle Urban, Paul Wilbert and Chad Zagacki. The Lumberjacks open the season today at the Bulldog Invitational at Ferris State University.
Jacobs only had eight runners on his team last year and all of them were from Alpena. This year, ACC's team is still heavy on local runners but also features several talented runners from out of the area.
Sophomore Travis LaCross is one of four returning runners for ACC this year and is the team's captain. Jacobs said LaCross has stepped up his game in preseason training as he aims to catch the eye of Division 1 schools this year.
"He's absolutely stepped up this year. From end of last year until now he's just busted his butt. He's got a target on his back and he's just crushing everybody," Jacobs said.
Kyle Urban, Andrew Sumerix and Katie Brownell are the other returning runners and Jacobs has been impressed by the work ethic of all three.
Among the newcomers this season are Jon Fitch of Alpena and Brandon Gibson of Alcona. Both are former soccer players and already they've emerged as two of the Lumberjacks' top runners, even though neither has run cross country before.
Right now they're in top four or five runners. They're my ringers: those guys that are really pushing everyone else," Jacobs said. "If it's any indication on Brandon Gibson and Jon Fitch, I'll recruit soccer players til the cows come home. Their work ethic is unbelievable. It's the first time I've seen these guys run and my jaw dropped. I'm amazed at how talented they are."
JD Niergarth, Zane Forintos and Paul Wilbert are among the other local newcomers. Niergarth and Forintos are former cross country runners for Alpena and Wilbert was a multi-sport athlete for Rogers City who also ran cross country. Erin Wright, a home-schooled student from Alpena, is also part of the team and Jacobs likes what he's seen from her thus far.
Jacobs' efforts to expand ACC's program have already paid off in its second season. When he showed up to a meet to sign Big Rapids' Chad Heberling, Jacobs noticed another talented runner in Reed City's Chad Zagacki and convinced him to sign with Alpena rather than heading to Alma.
Jacobs also signed brothers Jake and Luke Spaulding of Morenci after their mother called Jacobs and the brothers were drawn to ACC's family atmosphere.
"They've never had any competition so this is really good for them to come up here and be pushed," Jacobs said.
With so much talent on this year's team, Jacobs hopes to see better times than the ones the Lumberjacks' posted last year. Jared LaBarge, who signed with Eastern Michigan earlier this year, posted ACC's fastest time in the college 8K at 26 minutes. Jacobs said he needs at least five runners with times under 27 minutes for the Lumberjacks to be competitive.
The Lumberjacks will need to post times in that area to stay competitive against a formidable lineup of Michigan Community College Athletic Association teams. In the first national poll released earlier this week, Muskegon was seventh, Macomb was 13th, Oakland was 18th and Kirtland was 22nd.
Jacobs hopes the Lumberjacks' talent catches a few of those teams off-guard.
"Lansing is always a powerhouse. that's the program that we will become. Muskegon has some really good recruits this year and Mott is always tough," Jacobs said. "We're going to surprise some people just because we've got an extreme amount of talented on this team."
James Andersen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.