Georgia State cross country team establishes itself this season


The season is young, but based on the initial pair of meets for Georgia State’s cross country team, they appear to once again be a formidable contender for a Sun Belt Conference championship.

A season to strive

The Panthers kicked off their season Aug. 29 with a second place finish at the Western Carolina Invitational in North Carolina. For four consecutive years, The Florida Gators finished in first place, while Georgia State placed fourth, sixth, ninth, eleventh and sixteenth.

The team’s three seniors—Hannah Stefanoff, Stella Christoforou and Niamh Kearney led the way with fourth, sixth, and ninth while freshman Nuria Ramirez placed eleventh and Jordan Townsley placed sixteenth.

Georgia State followed up their winnings in North Carolina with victories in all eight head-to-head races at the Powerade Invitational in Chattanooga, Tenn. Among their victories included besting No. 9 South Region ranked Tennessee 26-31, and edging No. 12 South Region ranked Chattanooga 27-29. The fourth, fifth, and seventh overall times went to Christoforou, Stefanoff and Kearney.

“It was really exciting because we were unranked and we beat a couple of ranked teams,” Stefanoff said. “Now we actually have teams that are looking at us and knowing that we’re a good team and we can beat them coming in.”

Christoforou was also named Sun Belt Female Runner of the Week.

“It was great to be recognized for my work so far and I hope, if anything, that it gives my teammates something to strive for,” Christoforou said.

Head Coach Chris England described the team’s showing as a continuation of improvement but also said it was what he expected.

“It was a great showing, but it was not surprising,” England said.

But Christoforou said that even though the team has begun the season on a positive note, the Panthers have many more kilometers to run.

“Our initial success is great, but I wouldn’t call it a success just yet,” he said. “Our team has only ran a couple of meets and there is a lot of the season to go. It is all about keeping our focus.”

The cross-country roster

One of the sport’s three upperclassmen is Christoforou who hails from Cyprus and is in her fifth year of eligibility. She transferred from the University of Georgia in 2014.

Christoforou was injured last season and she said it gave her a different perspective on athletics.

“The experience made me realize that academics are more important than athletics,” Christoforou said. “I also felt a change of scenery would serve me well.”

Another is Stefanoff who first arrived at Georgia State in 2011 from Grandview Heights, Ohio — a suburb of Columbus. She was Co-CAA Rookie of the Year that season and was also named to the Sun Belt’s All-First Team in both previous seasons since the Panthers moved to their new conference.

“Everyone came in this season, worked really hard and were really prepared,” Stefanoff said.

The third upperclassman is Kearney, who has earned five all-conference awards between cross-country as well as track and field. Her outdoor track and field resume includes posting the second highest 1,500 meter time in school history with a 4:26.64 at the Florida Relays this past season. She also recently won the Yellow Jacket Invitational with a 4:32.26.

In addition to the seniors, the team features one junior — Carina Nieto and a sophomore — Mackenzie Nail. Ramirez, Townsley, Sarah Bearden and Melanie Hamilt are the team’s four freshmen this year.

Stefanoff had high praise for the performances of the team’s newcomers up to this point in the season.

“We have really good freshmen that came in,” Stefanoff said. “In addition, our newcomers have really stepped up and filled the positions of people that graduated last year.”

Christoforou reflected back on her time as a freshman with the Bulldogs and now views herself in a leadership role as an upperclassman.

“When I first came in as a freshman, it was all about scholarships and I was into myself a lot,” Christoforou said. “Now I somewhat feel like a mother in a sense that I have to be a leader and set an example for the rest of the team. It’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of the college lifestyle as a freshman, but it is important to ensure that it doesn’t sidetrack you.”

The Panthers also have put emphasis on team chemistry and cohesiveness, as well as focusing on great performances on the course.

“There is great team chemistry among us. We’re all friends and communicate with each other — even when we’re not competing — on a regular basis about many things that are and aren’t related to cross country,” Christoforou said.

Christoforou also senses a certain excitement among this team every time they take to the course to compete.

“There’s an optimism among our team. We get excited for every meet we’re in,” she said.

Maintaining pace

The cross country team has several meets coming up as the season progresses including three consecutive meets in Alabama spanning two months. The third of those meets is the Sun Belt Championship in Mobile, Alabama Nov. 2.

“In order for us to win it this year, I definitely think that everyone needs to race their best, but we all need to go into it confidently,” Stefanoff said. “We entered 2012 with a mindset that we were going to win and that we weren’t afraid of any other teams. It takes a whole team to win. Everyone has to be ready. Even if they don’t feel good, they still have to catch the person in front of them.”

The Panthers won the conference championship in 2012 in the team’s first year in the Sun Belt. They finished fourth last season behind Arkansas State, UT Arlington and Western Kentucky who has since departed the Sun Belt for Conference USA.

“I remember Coach [Chris] England letting me know that Georgia State won the conference two years ago and that just made me even more excited to join this team,” Christoforou said.

The preseason coaches’ poll had Georgia State ranked third behind Arkansas State and UT Arlington. But the team still has expectations of finishing at the top spot in the conference at the end of the year.

“Our goal every year is to win the Sun Belt championship,” England said.