By: Dwayne Tingley
The day Jessica Needham has been anticipating has almost arrived.
The 26-year-old native of Drumbo, Ont. is eager to begin her second season as a member of the Dalhousie Tigers cross country team. The Tigers enter the season as the defending women's champions in Atlantic University Sport.
"I'm excited to return and seeing what we are capable of," Needham said.
The AUS cross country season opens on Saturday, Sept. 21 at St. Francis University in Antigonish, N.S.
The opening meet of the season, which was scheduled for Sept. 7 in Halifax, was cancelled because of Hurricane Dorian.
The season will include meets at Acadia University on Oct 5, at the University of Prince Edward Island on Oct. 12 and the Subway AUS Cross Country Championships being hosted Oct. 26 by the University of New Brunswick.
Needham, who is beginning her second year at Dal and is entering her first year as an MSc candidate for a master's in environmental studies, said the Tigers have a strong roster that features several returning runners and a talented group of recruits.
"I'm looking forward to working together ad drawing on all of our unique strengths as athletes," she said.
"While the season may seem to flash by quickly, it already feels like our team is starting to come together, and I think that will help make us Dal proud as we move forward in our racing season."
Tigers head coach Rich Lehman said Needham and Georgia Waller are the only two of the team's top seven competitors are returning from last year's championship roster. He also has high hopes for newcomer Emily Hamilton.
"Everyone is getting better," said Lehman, who is beginning his eighth season at the helm of the Tigers.
"On the women's side, StFX and Acadia are hungry to win a title," he continued. "We've won six in a row now and it's a little bit closer every year. I believe our conference championship is going to be decided by five to seven points, so we were going to have to be on if we want a shot."
Lehman, who is also head coach at Halifast Athletics, the largest track and field club in Nova Scotia, said the early season cancellation may have been a blessing because it allowed more time for training.
"We try to individualize our tapers as much as possible, but really it comes down to making sure the athletes feel confident on the day," Lehman noted.
"By the end of October, we know everyone is going to be fit so getting them to the start line feeling ready to go is the key. We try to keep things relaxed and try to keep the work we've done in the back of our minds. We know that we're as prepared as anyone on that day."
The Tigers placed second, behind the X-Men, in the men's AUS standings last year.
Lehman, who is also head coach of the men's team, said the Tigers have five of their top seven runners returning and represent as strong a team as he's ever had at Dal.
The X-Men, meanwhile, have four student-athletes from last season's men's team returning to defend their championship.
"We have some very good runners who have left and we'll need others to step up," said X-Men head coach Eric Gillis, a three-time Olympian and former Canadian marathon champion who has been head coach at StFX for a year and a half.
"I'm very happy with the work our competitors put in this summer in preparation for this season," he added. "The put a lot of work in and they took their recovery times very seriously.
"All of this tells me that we have a group of athletes who want to do well, and they are mindful of the strong competition they are going to face in this conference. We are all very excited about getting the season started."
The U SPORTS national championship meet is scheduled for Nov. 9 at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.