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Pioneers aim for gold at SAC Championships

Pioneers aim for gold at SAC Championships

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- The Tusculum University men's and women's cross country teams will compete at the South Atlantic Conference Championships on Saturday, hosted by Wingate University.

The Pioneers have three top-five team finishes in both men's and women's competitions this season, and are aiming to improve on last year's seventh-place finishes. The Tusculum women have not finished in the top half of the conference at the SAC Championship since 2004, while the men's best-ever finish at the meet was a fifth-place result in 2008.

Tusculum head coach Cory Pratt expects to have runners compete for the SAC title in both the men's and women's races, highlighted by Nicole McMillen who has three race wins and a runner-up finish in four women's competitions this fall. On the men's side, Will Cronin and Kyler Hodges have combined for four top-10 finishes in six events this season, including a one-two finish at the season-opening Zaxby's Open.

The championship event will begin with the women's 6-kilometer race at 9 a.m. Saturday, followed by the men's 8-kilometer race at 10:15 a.m. at the Wingate XC Facility, which will also be the site of the NCAA Southeast Regional meet on Saturday, Nov. 9.

WOMEN'S PREVIEW
McMillen has been dominant in her four races this fall, winning her first race by more than a minute and setting a course record by nearly 30 seconds at the Zaxby's Open on Sept. 6. Two weeks later, McMillen was second by less than a second at the Wingfoot Classic in Atlanta, then came back on Oct. 5 to win the Blue Division race at the Live In Lou Classic by more than 11 seconds in a field of 531 competitors. The Pickering, Ontario native capped the regular season with a win at the Bobcat Invitational at Georgia College by more than a minute and a half, also setting a course record by nearly 50 seconds.

McMillen, who played four years of women's soccer for Tusculum, had the opportunity to compete at last year's SAC Championship and finished fifth overall in her first collegiate cross country race. McMillen then finished fifth at regionals and took 59th overall out of 266 runners at the 2018 NCAA Division II Championship.

Last year, McMillen became the first Tusculum women's runner to earn first-team All-SAC since Amanda Musick did so four straight years from 2001-04, and will attempt to become the Pioneers' first women's SAC champion since Musick in 2003. McMillen is already a four-time SAC champion in track and field, winning the indoor mile and the outdoor 1500, steeplechase and 5000 meters last season en route to earning the SAC Women's Track Athlete of the Meet award.

Senior Alissa Furches has placed in the top 25 at the SAC Championships each of the last two years, finishing 20th in 2017 and 25th last year. The South Greene graduate had her fastest career 6K time at the Bobcat Invitational two weeks ago, finishing in 19th place at 23:44.7. Furches has six career top-10 finishes for the Pioneers, including a sixth-place showing at the season-opening Zaxby's Open.

Senior Brooklyn Smith will be competing at the SAC Championship for the fourth time in her career, with a best finish of 56th at last year's meet when she posted a career-best time of 25:47.8. Smith, a native of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, has a best career finish of 12th place at the Lenoir-Rhyne Classic last season.

Junior Emily Stoklosa returns to run at the conference championship meet for the third time in her career, following a 36th-place showing in 2016 and a 27th-place performance in 2017. Stoklosa, who hails from Homer Glen, Illinois, has only run in a 6-kilometer race once in 11 career starts, turning in a time of 25:00.5 at the 2016 Southeast Regional.

A trio of freshmen will fill out the lineup for the Pioneers, as Gabrielle Beckett, Emmi Hulse and Erin Bruce will make their SAC Championship debuts.

Beckett has competed in all four meets for the Pioneers this season, with the Soddy Daisy, Tennessee native taking 16th at the Zaxby's Open and 24th at the Bobcat Invitational. Hulse ran three times during the season, and the Jonesborough, Tennessee product had a season-best run of 28th at the Bobcat Invitational. Bruce, also a Jonesborough native, was 32nd overall at the Bobcat Invitational for her best finish in three meets.

MEN'S PREVIEW
Cronin makes a welcome return to the SAC Championship lineup for the Pioneers after missing last season's meet due to injury. The Greeneville High School grad was 29th overall as a freshman and had top-10 finishes in each of his first two races last year before being forced to the sidelines. This year, the junior won the Zaxby's Open for the second straight year and finished 15th at the Wingfoot Classic with a 8K-best time of 25:50.2.

Hodges was honorable mention All-SAC as a freshman following a 21st-place finish with a time of 26:21.6. This season, Hodges was second to Cronin at the Zaxby's Open and 14th at the Wingfoot Classic, then ran 10th at the Live In Lou Classic with a career-best 8K time of 24:58.0. The Casselberry, Florida native closed out the regular season with a fourth-place run at the Bobcat Invitational.

Senior Taylor Tupps finished 36th at last year's SAC Championship in his first season with the Pioneers. A graduate of nearby Chuckey-Doak High School, Tupps tied his career-best finish with a second-place run at the Bobcat Invitational two weeks ago with a time of 25:30.2, just seconds off his career-best performance at last year's Royals Challenge.

Sophomore Carson Walls was 74th at last year's SAC Championship, and is coming off his career-best time in the 8K of 26:57.9 set at the Bobcat Invitational, where he finished in 17th place. The Gray, Tennessee native also finished 17th in the Zaxby's Open to begin the season.

Another sophomore, Alex Perez, has a pair of top-15 finishes this season and will be competing at the SAC Championship for the first time in his career. In his last three 8K races, the native of Aviles, Spain has cut a total of 51 seconds off his time, finishing 15th at the Bobcat Invitational in 26:48.7.

Senior Kyle Stanley will also debut at the conference championship meet, although he ran at least year's Southeast Regional. Stanley took 26th place at the Bobcat Invitational and was 14th at the Zaxby's Open, and the native of Chaguanas, Trinadad and Tobago also added a career-best 8K time of 27:13.7 at the Live In Lou Classic.

The lone freshman in the Pioneer lineup is Antonio Aparicio, who ran in all four meets for the Pioneers this season. The Valencia, Spain product took 20th place at both the Zaxby's Open and the Bobcat Invitational and ran a solid 88th place at the Wingfoot Classic.

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