“They both had fantastic track seasons where they both ran into the UNC all-time track list,” Watson said.
Cunningham ran a 4:00:92 mile, the third fastest time in school history, while Watchempino marked his place in the record books with a 29:23.81 in the 10,000-meter run — the fifth fastest in North Carolina history.
“We definitely have to be leaders of the team,” Cunningham said. “We have to show them by our example how to put the work in at practice and how to show up on race days. We also have to show them the expectations that we have for this year, because we want to be competing for the ACC Championships in cross country.”
And when talking about the freshman class, Watson isn’t bashful: “We have some of the most talented freshmen kids in the country, who in the next two to three years will develop into, hopefully, ACC champions, NCAA champions.”
On the women’s side, the outlook is similar. The Tar Heels return Ashley Verplank and Mariana Lucena, two of their three All-Region performers from last season, and they add an incoming class with high expectations.
“I am excited to now finally be an upperclassman and to direct the freshmen in the right direction and hopefully give them the guidance that they need and that I wanted as a freshman myself,” Verplank said.
When it comes to the newest runners — three freshmen and three transfers — Watson expects big things.
Kendra Schaaf, who finished second at the individual cross country national championships last year, headlines the class. She enters the season as the top returner in the country, after the graduation of national champion Angela Bizzarri.
Watson said the goal for the men’s team is to finish in the top four regionally, which would almost ensure an NCAA bid, and even higher expectations for the women.
“I will be very surprised if we aren’t top three in our region when it comes down to it, and we aren’t top two or three in the ACC,” he said.
“With Ashley and Kendra leading the way, our 1-2 is just as good as pretty much anyone in the country.”
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