RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. - Harding, the three-time Great American Conference women's cross country champions, received nine of 11 first-place votes from the league's head coaches to enter 2016 as the preseason favorite, the conference office announced on Tuesday.
The Lady Bisons won 2015 GAC Championships with a perfect team score of 15. They also made a return to the NCAA National Championships after finishing fifth at the NCAA Regional Meet. While Harding must replace Ewa Zaborowska, the three-time GAC Runner of The Year, it does return three of its five scoring runners from both the GAC and NCAA Championships -Amber Webb, Sylvie Mueller and Madison Drennan. At the GAC Championships, Webb took sixth, Mueller finished in seventh and Drennan placed ninth as all three earned First-Team All-GAC honors. The Lady Bisons also return Second-Team All-GAC runner Kirstie Smith.
East Central picked up the remaining two first-place votes to take second in the voting. As a freshman, Anna Mora finished 10th at the GAC Championships to land on the All-GAC First Team. Michaela Lombardi improved from a 40th-place showing in 2014 with a 17th-place result to capture a spot on the All-GAC Second Team.
Southern Arkansas placed third in the poll, followed by Southwestern Oklahoma State. Both the Lady Muleriders and Bulldogs return a runner that earned Second-Team All-GAC status in 2015. SWOSU's Isela Sandoval took 13th last October while SAU's Ashlynne Foley finished in 18th.
Southern Nazarene took fifth, two points ahead of Arkansas Tech, with Southeastern Oklahoma State in seventh. Henderson State and Ouachita tied for eighth, followed by Northwestern Oklahoma State and Arkansas-Monticello.
Oklahoma Baptist, in its third year of the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II, did not appear in the poll, per league policy. At last year's GAC Championships, seven members of the Bison earned All-GAC honors. The team went on to take second at the NCCAA National Championships. Oklahoma Baptist returns four All-GAC runners in First-Team performers Emily Sechrist and Sydney Lawrence along with Second-Team selections Kaylee Large and Zoya Timoshenko. Sechrist earned Freshman of the Year honors after she finished fifth at the GAC Championships.
Ten of the 12 teams open their season on Saturday, September 3. Ouachita hosts the Bob Gravett Invitational with Arkansas-Monticello and Henderson State running in Arkadelphia. East Central, Oklahoma Baptist, Northwestern Oklahoma State, Southeastern Oklahoma State and Southwestern Oklahoma State will compete at Central Oklahoma's UCO Land Run. Arkansas Tech and Southern Arkansas head to Christian Brothers to partake in the Brooks Memphis Twilight. Southeastern Oklahoma State will host the 2016 GAC Cross Country Championships, set for Saturday, October 22 in Durant.