The St. F.X. cross country team will open training camp Aug. 31.
“We are looking at, hopefully, in the vicinity of 25 to 30 athletes [coming in],” head coach Bernie Chisholm, who is entering his 32nd and final season, said.
He noted the student-athletes will participate in a time trial Saturday, Sept. 9, on the Oland Stadium track, with the X-Women and X-Men running 5k and 8k, respectively.
It will be the second year for that location.
“We used to have it on our cross country course. We can watch the runners the whole way, on the track, so we are going to do that again this year,” Chisholm said.
For both the men and women, he agreed, depth will be one of the biggest challenges.
“In the coaching world, some years you have very good luck with recruiting and other years you can have a lot of athletes in visiting the school and you just don’t get them,” Chisholm said.
“This year, I think, we had as many, if not more, athletes in – visiting campus and so on.”
Chisholm noted there are so many options for varsity athletes.
“It is wide open,” he said, adding AUS programs are “getting much more competitive.”
“The appeal of the U.S. scholarships is still there, but a lot of them are staying in Canada as well.”
Chisholm noted each school faces recruiting challenges.
“You have to play the hand you are dealt,” he said.
Because of the thin recruiting year, Chisholm noted, the X-Women will “rely heavily” on returnees.
“I certainly feel comfortable with the girls who are coming back, led by Liz MacDonald and Hana Marmura – who is going to be healthy this year; they are two athletes you can build a program around,” he said.
Sophomore Zoe Johnston is also back.
“She is certainly ready to step up and I feel confident that she can do it,” Chisholm said.
He added senior Olivia MacDonald has “put in a lot of miles over the summer.”
“She tells me she is feeling very strong,” Chisholm said.
Catherine Thompson is back for her junior season, while Paige Chisholm and Ashley Robson will be in their sophomore campaigns.
“I feel they can all contribute in a major way, as well,” Chisholm offered.
The veteran mentor talked about “the major change” for women runners this season – the move from 5k to 8k for AUS and U SPORTS championship competition.
“Although all the meets will not be that, come championship time it is going to be a major difference,” Chisholm said.
“I certainly have no problem – I know our girls are capable of doing it. We are a team that logs a lot of miles, so they will be ready for the challenge.”
He added the X-Women are “willing to put in the miles.”
“As far as [doing] any extra mileage, I don’t feel that’s necessary because they are capable of doing it,” Chisholm said.
He was asked about expectations for the X-Women.
“We are not going to step back – our goal has always been to become the best you are capable of, and that continues to be our goal,” Chisholm said.
He reiterated how crucial it is to put in the work during the offseason.
“I always say that championships are awarded in-season, but won out of season.”
As for the rest of the conference, Chisholm said Dalhousie – the five-time AUS champions – “took a major hit as well.”
“But I also know that they have recruited some very good athletes, so they will definitely be the team to beat,” he added.
Over the past few seasons, Chisholm noted, the Acadian Axewomen have been “moving up the ranks.”
“They are getting stronger – they placed third last year, behind us [and Dal],” he said.
“I know that [head coach] Ralph [Williams] and the group at Acadia are looking to move up as well.”
Chisholm added UNB is “always strong” and, as for Memorial, “you never know what they have on any given year.”
When it comes to the defending conference champion X-Men, Chisholm said “we certainly took a major hit.”
“We had great depth over the last number of years – we were very fortunate because we did have some major injuries, as well.
“It certainly shows the importance of having eight, 10, 12 runners on the team, and that’s what we were able to do; the ninth, 10th runners were able to move up and run in championships.
“That certainly helped us and gave those runners experience,” he added.
Topping the list of returnees is Angus Rawling, who Chisholm said is coming off a “very solid first two seasons.”
“I think Angus is ready to take the next step,” he added, noting his runner’s top-six performance in the 5,000m at the Canadian Senior Championships.
Chisholm described Rawling as a “very dedicated and committed runner.”
Alex Neuffer is back for his fourth season.
“He is as talented as any runner in the AUS,” Chisholm said, noting injuries have hindered his development.
“If he can stay healthy during the year, it is going to make a world of difference.
“I spoke to him last week and he said he is healthy and ready to go,” he added.
Chisholm noted Neuffer ran a 15:09 in a recent P.E.I. road race, which placed him third behind former X-Men teammates Lee Wesselius and Alex Cyr.
“Again, we are just hoping that Alex can stay healthy for the whole season,” he said.
Chisholm also has high expectations for Antigonish native Paul MacLellan and Addison Derhak.
“We hope they will step up and close the gap of some of the runners that have left,” he said.
The first-year class for the X-Men includesPeter Corbin, a Pictou County product, along with Jonah Shankel from the Annapolis Valley and Antigonish product Aidan Canning.
“He had a concussion a couple weeks ago, unfortunately, and had to take a break,” Chisholm said of Canning.
He added the trio will contribute.
“If not help immediately, certainly they can have a solid freshman year and help the program down the road,” Chisholm said.
For the conference, he anticipates Dalhousie will be “the team to beat.”
“And, certainly, picking up the  AUS champion [with the X-Men] in Cal Dewolfe is not going to hurt them,” Chisholm said, noting the Tigers also have a couple fifth-year runners returning.
The AUS season will get underway Saturday, Sept. 16 with the UNB/STU Invitational in Fredericton.
“We are looking forward to that – it is always nice to get on the road and away for that overnight trip – get some team chemistry and bonding together,” Chisholm said.
After the SMU/Dal Invitational in Halifax (Sept. 23), the team will have a week off.
“That is nice because we would have had three races in three weeks [by then],” Chisholm noted.
They will return to action Saturday, Oct. 7 with a trip to Quebec City for interlock competition at the Laval Invitational.
“It will be our first real test,” Chisholm said.
The St. F.X. Invitational (Oct. 14) follows on the team’s home course.
The following week the conference championship will take place, for the first time, at Acadia in Wolfville.
“We are looking forward to that and we know they will certainly put on a great show,” Chisholm said.
He noted “the big one” – the U SPORTS Championships will be at the University of Victoria.
“It will be on a Sunday [Nov. 12] this year,” Chisholm noted, due to the Remembrance Day holiday.