(MSUB Athletics photo)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – The men’s and women’s cross country teams will open up the 2017 season this weekend in Spearfish, S.D., as Montana State University Billings travels to face Black Hills State. This year will mark the first season under head coach Jonathan Woehl after the retirement of long-time head coach Dave Coppock.

“It is definitely an adjustment,” Woehl said of taking over the program. “It’s a bit like drinking water out of a fire hose at first but we are starting to settle in now that I have coach Hammack here taking care of some things behind the scenes. We are going to make the adjustment and support our athletes the best that we can.”

Woehl is already familiar with his roster after spending the previous two seasons as an assistant for the Yellowjackets. Some of the top returners include senior Jorey Egeland on the men’s team and sophomore Nikki Aiken on the women’s side. The two have been named captains for this season and are expected to be at the front of the pack when MSUB gets running.

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Egeland finished 2016 in the top-20 at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships with a time of 25:59.0. The senior from Billings has improved every year with the ‘Jackets and finished last season with four top-10 finishes in eight events and shaving over 50 seconds off of his conference championship performance as a sophomore. Egeland has his sights set high for his senior season.

“Individually, this has been the hardest summer I’ve put in as far as mileage so I’m hoping to be top-10 in conference and top-25 at regionals,” Egeland said of his expectations. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team, we’re all working together and pushing each other forward. I want to do the best I can in the big races especially to help push our guys up in the conference, region and nationally.”

Aiken competed as a freshman during the 2016 season and showed a lot of potential while making steady improvement throughout the year. Her top finish came in the Gage McSpadden Invitational where she finished sixth over the 4K race.

“She was never satisfied with her performance,” Woehl said of Aiken’s freshman campaign. “We saw her continue to improve throughout our tack season and she started to see some results but still wanted more. She is developing as a leader and an excellent runner. She is doing a great job bringing the rest of the team with her.”

The women’s team will also look to Billings native and senior Bailey Bomar to contribute as a top-5 runner for the Yellowjackets. Bomar cracked the top-25 in four events as a junior and Coach Woehl believes her summer training will set her up for a healthy and successful final season at MSUB. Kelby Wegner will get the chance to run a full season with the ‘Jackets after competing in one event in her first year with the team.

Ella McKenzie and Catrina Schuchard return for their sophomore season to round out the returning women’s roster. McKenzie completed all eight events for the ‘Jackets in 2016 while Schuchard ran in seven.

The men will have a few more returners to lean on throughout the season as Liam McKay, Tyus Mendoza, Ivan Colmenero and Ronald Venema give the ‘Jackets some depth at the top of their lineup. Mendoza turned in consistent performances in the 2016 season and broke into the top-20 at the Yellowjacket Invite and the Gage McSpadden Invitational. Colmenero has battled through injury and managed his workload over the summer to give himself the opportunity to break out as a junior.

“Tyus really improved his training this summer and did well in our time trial,” Woehl said. “Ivan did a good job managing his health this summer, we just need him to have a healthy season. I see Ron and Liam having the ability and potential to move up with Jorey, Tyus and Ivan. With those guys we have a good core coming back for our three freshmen to contribute to.”

The three freshmen on the men’s side, Carson Jessop, Drake Henson and Jack Pickell, will look to compete for a spot in the MSUB top-5 but will have to adjust to the distance and endurance that the collegiate season requires. Jessop is coming off of a Montana Class-A state championship in 2016 after competing for four years for the Corvallis High School Blue Devils. Henson and Pickell were all-state performers in Montana and Oregon respectively in 2016.

On the women’s team, three newcomers provide a mix of experience and youth with junior Ruth Chepsat and a trio of freshmen, Kateri Bridges, Jerrica Martin and Kayla Simonsen. Chepsat spent the last two seasons competing at Gillette Community College and finished the 2016 season as an All-American for both cross country and track and field.

“With Kateri, Ruth, Jerrica and Kayla we’ve got a good range of athletes,” Woehl said of the new crop. “Ruth has run cross country at a high level before and was a pretty accomplished runner at Gillette. She will be in the mix for our top-five. Kateri was good in high school and I could see her developing into a competitive runner for us. Kayla has a lot of raw potential and we just have to integrate her into our program and show her the ropes of running a cross country race as part of a team.”

The Great Northwest Athletic Conference will have a lot of depth in 2017 with the University of Alaska Anchorage picked to finish first on both the men’s and women’s side. For the ‘Jackets, the men are picked to finish in seventh while the women were picked 10th.

After their opening race this Friday, the ‘Jackets will go to Bozeman for the Montana State Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 16. MSUB will host the Yellowjacket Invitational on Saturday, Oct. 7 before heading to the GNAC Championships on Oct. 21.