This article was written by Eric Bartelt of the Pointer View. It originally appeared September 24, 2009.
It's been a long, grueling injuryfilled road to the starting line for Army women's cross country runner Firstie Stephanie Schoeneman. After a strong 2007 season, Schoeneman couldn't make the leap forward last year because of injuries.
Looking to get back on track, Schoeneman wanted to put the injuries of last year behind her with a strong start at the Army Open Sept. 4. Unfortunately, she finished in 10th place with a time of 20 minutes, 33.60 seconds and felt she wasn't at her best because she has been fighting a leg injury.
"I was somewhat disappointed with my finish, but I think after the first race I now know what I need to do in the races to come," Schoeneman said.
Schoeneman would not get a chance to run in the second race of the season with her injury as Army lost a dual meet to Cornell Sept. 11.
"I was out for a week battling a stress reaction (in my left leg), an injury that started hurting after the Army Open," Schoeneman said.
"However, I think it held me back during the Army Open race."
The time away from the cross country course allowed her to view the team from an outsider's perspective. It gave her, as the team captain, an opportunity to see how the team deals with a race mentally throughout the course of 5-to-6- kilometer races.
She was able to take notes and lead her peers and give them direction, which certainly is a quality that head cross country coach Troy Engle has not missed in his women's captain.
"She's been a phenomenal leader," Engle explained. "She is a great example of somebody who can absolutely be a leader on a team without necessarily having to be the No. 1 runner. She's been a great resource for me as a coach and coach (Jayne) Penn, my assistant, as we rely on her as a great soundboard during our first full year as coaches of (the cross country) team."
The Fort Worth, Texas, native's importance to the team is amplified as 33 percent of the squad are plebes.
"We've got a significant infusion of great talent from (Jillian) Busby, (Mary) Prakel, (Cecilia) Forshee and (Claire) Betterbed, and those four kids could be in our Top 7," Engle said. "It's an interesting dynamic when you've got such a big injection (almost 33 percent) of very talented newcomers, but Stephanie has done a great job of bringing that group together and keeping them focused."
The team has come out strong this season, although no one has been stronger on the team than Plebe Jillian Busby. She finished first at the Army Open with a time of 18:58.80, which was 37 seconds better than second-place finisher Cow Courtney Clement.
The Merrimack, N.H., native followed her stunning debut with another great performance finishing fifth overall, first among Army runners, versus Cornell with a time of 18:59.70.
Teammates and the head coach have all been highly impressed with Busby's ability to lead the pack early in her collegiate career.
"I knew she was good, and that she was going to be a great addition to the program," Engle said. "However, the thing that surprised me through her (first two) performances was that with Cadet Basic Training she wasn't able to get very much training in, so I'm even more excited about her potential and upside-if she's able to stay healthy and gets through a full season with some high volume running under her belt."
Schoeneman feels that Busby has a chance to surprise many people, but also become a premier runner and as strong as last year's top Army runners, Megan Curran, who graduated, and Firstie Ashley Morgan.
"We've seen her run at practice in the front, so it's not too much of a shock to us," Schoeneman said. "But, that gap she had between her and the second runner at the Army Open was pretty big. I think she'll surprise teams like Navy. When Jill goes out in front, I think we'll have a lot of runners try to go out with her, so I think we'll have a really good pack this year."
In addition, Morgan should continue being Army's top runner as she performed well in her first race at Cornell finishing in sixth place with a time of 19:02.20. Morgan, who also competes with the Army Triathlon team, was Army's top runner in five of the team's eight competitions last year.
Yearling Chelsea Prahl, who competed in her first race of the season at Cornell, finished 10th overall.
With the infusion of young blood and a strong veteran presence, it gives the Army women a chance to possibly earn their first Patriot League Championship title since 2004.
"I think what drives us as a team is the fact we haven't won a title in awhile, and this year we look really strong," Schoeneman said. "It would mean the world to the girls and the coaches if we won the title. It would be amazing, considering we haven't beaten Navy my three years here or won the Patriot League, as we came in fourth (last year)."
Engle believes the team can do better than its fourth-place finish a year ago, although he recognizes teams like Navy and Bucknell in the Patriot League are going to be tough to leap frog over to become the best. With thoughts of winning a Patriot League title, Engle also doesn't want to put too much pressure on his young squad.
"I'm careful not to build up expectations because I do want to look at it from a long-term development standpoint," Engle said. "I have every bit of confidence that this group will be very competitive within the conference.
"I think we will turn some heads this year despite our fourth-place finish last year," he added. "I think a lot of people will look at us and go, 'holy cow, that's a different group,' in a good way. We're really in a good place right now in terms of attitude and commitment, and I think it'll show at the end of the season."