Bowling Green, Ky. - The WKU men's and women's cross country teams begin the defense of their Sun Belt Conference cross country championships on Friday as they take the course in the Belmont Opener in Nashville, Tenn.
Both teams will face-off with Belmont, Kennesaw State, Kentucky, Lipscomb, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State.
The Hilltoppers are coming off the first triple crown (cross country, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field) in Sun Belt Conference history and have won four straight titles overall.
An experienced group of returnees look to lead WKU to back-to-back cross country championships for the first time since 1997-1998.
Sophomore David Mokone headlines the battle-tested Hilltoppers. Mokone finished fourth at the Sun Belt Cross Country Championships in 2011 on his way to being named all-conference and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. He continued his success in the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, winning Sun Belt titles in the 800 and 1,500 meters at the Outdoor Track and Field Championships while notching a win in the mile at the Indoor Track and Field Championships. He was named Most Outstanding Track Performer for both seasons.
Cross country head coach Erik Jenkins has high expectations for the young Mokone.
"The majority of the events David competes in here at WKU, I wouldn't be surprised if he held their records," said Jenkins. "He'll be a multi-time NCAA qualifier and I wouldn't be surprised if he was an NCAA champion. That's how good he is."
Seniors Kyle Chettleburgh and Joseph Chebet will also be high-scorers at WKU meets this season. Chettleburgh's ninth place finish at the 2011 Sun Belt Conference Cross Country Championships earned him all-conference honors. Chebet, who will be running his first season of cross country for the Hilltoppers, made waves during the 2012 outdoor season by finishing 23rd in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
"I think both David (Mokone) and Joseph (Chebet) are capable of running at a very elite level of Division-I cross country," said Jenkins. "Kyle Chettleburgh will be someone who does very well for us. Sean Hurd will be another guy that will contribute significantly in our efforts to try and repeat as Sun Belt Conference champions."
The Lady Toppers will vie for their seventh consecutive cross country title with a handful of youngsters and a few familiar faces. WKU loses perennial all-conference runners Marion Kandie and Michelle Finn but returns senior Vasity Chemweno. Chemweno is coming off two consecutive all-Sun Belt seasons and will spearhead the Lady Toppers in the effort for their ninth title in the last 10 years.
"The great thing about Vasity (Chemweno) is she's a great teammate and she's a heck of a competitor," said Jenkins. "When you take that type of person and they take the lead, you're a whole lot more prepared. She's a great student, a great team leader, the total package."
Six freshmen enter their first year of cross country action for the Lady Toppers and Jenkins expects his youngsters to grow up fast.
Scotland native Louise Hill-Stirling, who is competing in the World Mountain Running Championships in Temu, Italy this week, brings the unique combination of youth and experience to the Lady Toppers.
"She comes in with a bit of international experience and we expect her to be a contributor right away," said Jenkins.
Jenkins has bulked up the regular season slate this year in preparation for larger competitions down the road. WKU will not host the Old Timers Classic at Kereiakes Park this season, but instead compete in the Commodore Classic on Sept. 15 in Nashville, Tenn.
"You have to race the best to be the best," said Jenkins. We're a young team. We've got to put them in a position where they can compete at a high level and make them understand what it's like to be in that situation so as they mature, when they go to NCAAs, it won't shock them."
Other meets this season include the Greater Louisville Classic (Sept.29) and the Pre-NCAA Championships (Oct. 13). WKU will play host to the Sun Belt Cross Country Championships (Oct. 27) at Kereiakes Park for the third straight year.