NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After a long summer of training, the Belmont men's and women's cross country teams make their highly anticipated season debuts Saturday at home at the Belmont Opener meet at Percy Warner Park.
The races kick off the 2017 campaign for the Bruins with high expectations. The Belmont men, who will race at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, were tabbed second in the preseason Ohio Valley Conference poll. The women were picked third and will run at 9 a.m.
This year's Belmont Opener features seven men's and women's teams, including four from right here in Nashville. Joining the Bruins on the Vaughn's Gap 5K course will be hometown squads from Vanderbilt, Lipscomb and Trevecca Nazarene, along with representatives from Evansville, Austin Peay and Rhodes College.
As the first race of the season, the Belmont Opener gives veteran program director Jeff Langdon his first opportunity to really see his athletes in action. That holds as much importance as the outcome of the races.
"The first week, I almost look at this like the last exhibition game of the preseason," said Langdon, likening Saturday's competition to NFL preseason finales also taking place this week. "We'll have a little racing strategy, but what it's going to do is help us adjust our training based on what we see out there."
Observations from Saturday's meet will help Langdon and his coaching staff guide the Bruins to their peak potential this season. And there's plenty to look forward to on both the men's and women's sides.
The Belmont men return four seniors who piloted the Bruins to a second-place OVC finish in 2016. They'll pair with a foursome of talented sophomores who all strategically redshirted last season.
As a junior, Matt Evans (Glamorgan, Wales) was 12th at last year's conference meet, followed by classmates Luke Evans (Columbus, Ohio) in 16th, Anthony Didion (LaPorte, Ind.) in 18th and Matt Blivin (Durham, N.C.) in 22nd. They'll be joined by Declan McManus (Worcestershire, England), who was sixth as a freshman at the 2015 OVC Championships; Kaleb McLeod (Soperton, Ga.), who was 12th in 2015; Ben Weisel (Nashville) and Chase Ballard (Columbus, Ind).
"I think this can be a breakout year for the men's team," began Langdon, "but even then we have such a great future with so many people returning even beyond this year. I think the program is on the verge of some things that can happen at the national level eventually."
After seeing his teammates compete during preseason training, Ballard agrees. Depth and balance will be the Bruins' strengths.
"The main goals are our team goals and we want to push each other throughout the season," Ballard said. "The pack running together is bigger than it's ever been since I've been at Belmont."
The Belmont women too have a strong mix of veteran and newcomer talent.
Back from 2016's third-place OVC Championships team are four of the Bruins' top five placers. Only Hannah Denton, who finished a team-best 11th, has exhausted her eligibility. Langdon said he expects his returners to fill that void with a handful of promising freshmen lending support.
"It's going to be an interesting year because we also have three freshmen who can mix it up at the top of the lineup. That's always good for the program as we try and build this thing," Langdon said.
Top returners from last year's conference meet include senior Jessica King (Fishers, Ind.), who was 19th; senior Kiera Weems (Murfreesboro), who was 21st; sophomore Kortney Schardt (Lindenhurst, Ill), who was 22nd; and sophomore Sierra Lax (Columbus, Ind.), who was 38th.
After Saturday's Belmont Opener, the Bruins will next compete Sept. 16 at Vanderbilt's Commodore Opener, which marks the halfway point of cross country's expeditious regular season.
"We only get so many chances to race," said Lax, adding to her team's excitement over the Belmont Opener. "We already get to do workouts on the Percy Warner course, so getting to race there we have a real advantage. I think we're all ready for it."