When the USC Aiken women’s cross country team heads to Evans, Ga., to participate in the Augusta State Jaguar Invitational, it will be a homecoming of sorts for head coach Kara Kreutzer.

Kreutzer is an Augusta State grad who also ran cross country for the school. Since taking over the reins for the Pacers last year, she has been trying to build the program by providing goals for her team.

“We want to keep improving upon our times at each course and to try to stay grouped together,” Kreutzer said. “We want to get rid of the gaps between our runners.”

Last year the team finished in fourth in the event. The highest finisher on the team was Keely Gillespie, a North Augusta High School grad, who finished 11th out of 45 participants.

Gillespie’s in the midst of rewriting the record books at USCA. She already has the best time in a 5K as a freshman (19:34.8) in the 5K Lenoir-Rhyne Invitational. As a sophomore, she also holds the school record for the best time in a 6K (23:42.8), which she set at the Division II Southeast Regional.

Last month she was also named the Student Athlete of the Week for the week of Sept. 16.

“Our team this year is strong,” Gillespie said. “We’re like a little family. We’ve been training really hard all year. For this meet, we’ve ran it before, and we just want to do better than last year.”

That training goes back to Kreutzer. She was a late hire last year, coming on board in March. Because of that, she was meeting her returnees and freshmen late. Kreutzer wasn’t able to get everyone on the same page, and her athletes didn’t know what to expect from a new coach.

Now with a full year under her belt, she points to the team’s improvements as a by-product of the extra training.

“We’ve done a lot more summer running,” she said. “So far this year, we’ve been able to keep everyone closer to Keely instead of there being Keely, a gap, then everyone scattered out a bit.”

At USCA’s most recent meet in Montevallo, Ala., Gillespie finished 16th, and her efforts ended with the fourth-best time in school history. She owns four of the top six times in the 6K at USCA and also won her first-ever individual victory at Francis Marion earlier this year.

Last year both Kayla Milholland and Brittany May joined Gillespie in the top-20 at the Gamecock Invitational.

Before the season, the Pacers were pegged to finish eighth in the Peach Belt Conference. Their coach is hoping that they can surpass those expectations.

“Ideally, we could come somewhere in the middle of the pack,” Kreutzer said. “I think we could finish fifth or sixth. We just have to continue getting our runners together.”

Gillespie said she also feels the Pacers will succeed as a team. She also is hoping to personally make the all-region team.

“We’d love to come in the top five for the region,” she said. “As a team, though, we just want to continue improving upon our personal records each meet.”

Scott Rodgers is a graduate of Alvernia University and a staff writer at the AikenStandard.