By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Joel McMullen feels pretty good about his Eastern New Mexico University cross country program.
The Greyhounds and Zias hope to make some noise in the Lone Star Conference and in South Central Region competition this fall. They open their season by hosting the Mike Boit Invitational on Friday at Ned Houk Park, north of Clovis.
McMullen said the men, who finished fourth in the LSC and ninth in South Central Region competition last fall, have a good chance of moving up. They lost only one runner, Orlando Sanchez, to graduation.
“It’s the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” said McMullen, starting his third season at ENMU. “My expectations are high for the guys. I think they’ll be a lot better than last year.”
The Hounds return their top runner, sophomore Felix Boit of Kenya (his father was a standout at Eastern in the 1970s). They also have added junior Nimrod Lelei, another Kenyan who transferred from Wayland Baptist and “beat Felix every time they raced” last season, McMullen noted.
There are no seniors on the men’s squad.
“We’re going to really work hard,” said junior Jason Garcia of Alamogordo, beginning his third year in the program. “I’m really confident with all the guys.”
McMullen said the Hounds have a chance to be in the top three in both the LSC and the region. ENMU, ranked ninth of 22 teams in the region coming in, needs a top-three finish to make it to the NCAA Division II nationals.
“I feel like we should make a real push in the conference,” he said. “If we stay healthy, there’s no reason we can’t try to get one of the top three spots (in the region).”
The women also lost only one runner to graduation, Lynnae Chavez, and McMullen expects improvement.
“I think they’ll do this year what the guys did last year,” he said. “If they can do that, it would be a tremendous accomplishment.”
Joyce Doan, a senior from Federal Way, Wash., and sophomore Stacy Salazar of Albuquerque are probably the Zias’ top two returnees. Another senior, Laura Rivera of El Paso, is returning after missing two seasons with a knee injury.
“We have a solid top seven this year, which is something we’ve never had,” Doan said. “I feel like if we keep making improvement, we can have an outstanding regional (meet) and take it beyond that.
“This is my last season, and I want to see the girls do good. We’ve worked hard the past couple of years, and I’d really like to go out on a high note.”