Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – A year ago, the MacEwan Griffins plunged into the unknown, heading into the Canada West cross-country season with a women's team entirely comprised of rookies.
Head coach Drew Carver had no idea what to expect, but when Emma Steele captured a Canada West second team all-star award, it validated the talent of the young group.
Most of those runners return, but now it's the MacEwan men's team's turn. Other than second-year Owen Guenette, who is in doubt to compete this season due to an injury, the team is brand new.
"The other guys coming in are all rookies, so it's kind of an eye opener to see how (they'll do)," said Carver, whose team kicks off the 2019 season at Saturday's ACAC Grand Prix #1 at Edmonton's Gold Bar Park (Noon start).
"Last year was hard to recruit men to come in and commit to running 10K at a racing distance. Fortunately, over the summer, I've been able to pick up four guys for sure. There's a couple other guys interested, but we have to put them out there and see where their fitness is."
Two of those newcomers – Mason Burtnik and Tyler Herzberg – will race this weekend at an event that doesn't matter competitively as much as it matters internally; the Griffins will be using it a time trial to see where everyone's at early in the season.
"It's a test. We just come into it and run the race," said Carver. "I'm not worried about where they place, I just want to see how they do time wise and how they run the race – (whether) they go out there way too hard or if they don't approach it in the right form – and we'll see what happens.
"I don't give much instruction on how to do, I just watch and see what I get out of the end."
Steele returns to lead a strong Griffins women's team, which also includes reigning ACAC indoor track women's runner of the year Ember Large and ACAC Championship medalists Ashley Tymkow and Shaunice Burgers. Promising newcomers Kiana Row and Emma Perry add to the group.
"Most of the athletes on the women's side are returning, so they do have a bit of a routine, they know what's expected," said Carver. "A lot of them have been running and training over the summer. I expect to have a good performance out of them, but we're not tapering for this event. We just go right into it off a regular training week.
"We essentially just have a time trial with a group of other athletes," he added. "The nice thing about doing it that way is they do actually put in a pretty solid effort. They're competing against other people in other uniforms and you'll see them push themselves a lot harder than they would if I just said 'OK, this is our time trial.' It adds a little bit of adrenaline to the system."
The 2019 cross country season marks the first time there will be a separate Canada West championship, slated for Oct. 26 at Canmore Park in Calgary. Unlike in past years where everyone went to the U SPORTS nationals, now teams must qualify in the top three at the CW Championship to advance to the Nov. 9 event in Kingston, Ont.
"It's going to be unique in the fact we will see all the Canada West teams on the start line together and not have the rest of Canada mixed in there," said Carver of the change. "When you're competing at U SPORTS when you're doing this, it's harder to keep in mind where you are compared to Canada West teams. This is going to clarify that and make it really clear.
"The nice thing about it is we will see the teams up front," he added. "If we're one of the top three teams, we will advance to U SPORTS nationals. Then it comes down to individual performances. If they finish as an all-star, we'll decide whether they go on to compete as an individual representing our school. It's going to be exciting this year."
Other events the Griffins plan to attend this season include the Bear Creek Open in Victoria, B.C. Sept. 28, the Sun Dodger Invitational in Seattle, Wash., Oct. 5 and the Augustana Open in Camrose Oct. 12.