-Courtesy of Ralph Epifanio, GoHatters.com correspondent-
DeLand, Fla. - The sport of cross country runs like a bridge between summer and fall. But unlike this season's other sports--soccer with 20 contests, tennis (24 matches), and volleyball (close to 30)-this "run" is more like a short cut. This year our team has only six meets, so called because all of our races are in group competition, to prepare for the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships on Saturday, October 29th. Each of these meets not only provides a building block in our athletes' conditioning, but also represents an important step upward in their preparation for the "biggest game not in town."
Unlike other sports, where the athletes play, each time, on identical surfaces with precise dimensions and exacting equipment, cross country runners must adjust to courses that are each uniquely different, climatic conditions that can change rapidly-as well as from meet to meet--and adjust to the dynamics of group competition, which influences the meet's outcome by virtue of the combinations of different teams and their members.
The first meet of this year, the Jacksonville University Short Course Duals on September 2nd, served the dual purpose of a time trial, and as a stepping off point for freshmen and upper classmen alike. It is named a "short course" because the men ran 4.8 kilometers instead of 8, and the women 3.3 kilometers instead of 5; and duals because each team competes, in scoring, against each other, not the group as a whole. New runners Jeremy Butler (18:26.6), Angelo Parkinson (20:42.07), Sabrina Guzsvany (15:00.25), Christine Iseley (15:57.49), Tabitha Castrillon (16:05.09), and Julie Spear (16:10.32) got their first taste of collegiate competition, but not yet its longer distance. Established upperclassmen like Andrew Epifanio (17:16.24), Kyle Burton (17:50.59), Brian Dughi (19:12.53), Alyssa Thompson (15:19.91), and Stephanie Bird (15:53.62)-senior leader Maria Harper was not present-"got back on track" in their first meet in ten months. The men beat all but Savannah State, and the women finished 1-2.
Next up was the F.I.T. Invitational on September 10th. This meet was the first race at the 8K/5K distance for the men and women, respectively. On a flat but soggy Wickham Park course, the men won their first trophy of 2011. Top-10 performances by Andrew Epifanio (7th in 28:52) and Kyle Burton (9th in 29:22), were impressive, but so was Jeremy Butler in his first 8K (11th in 30-flat). Brian Dughi's 32:31 was big, but the trophy may have been confirmed by a determined Angelo Parkinson, who finished the race in a dead sprint to claim 18th place (33:22.77). For the women, Maria Harper (3rd in 19:59) returned to reclaim her #1 spot on the team; Guzsavany (21:54), Bird (24:06), Spear (24:10), and Castillon (24:28) scored.
The biggest meet of the year so far, both in sheer size and level of competition, was the September 24th Mountain Dew/University of Florida Invitational on the Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville. In a word, it was humbling. Between them, national powers Michigan (42 points), Florida (46 points), and North Carolina (47 points) placed 21 runners in the first 22, and topped a field of 17 teams. Andrew, despite the effects of an illness he had been battling for several days, once again led the Stetson men with his season's best 28:33.81; that time also eclipsed his 2010 time in this same meet. Kyle Burton was second (29:46.27). Behind him there was a reshuffling of the two previous orders of finish: Dughi (31:31.55), Butler (32:32.48), and Peter Davis (33:51.25) rounded out the scoring. In the women's race, once again UF and UNC were battling it out for supremacy, but sans Michigan. The Gators took the first three places and led the scoring with 30 points (UNC had 35). Our first page leader was Maria Harper in 19:40.69, followed by Sabrina (21:19.32), Alyssa Thompson (22:40.37), Christine (23:24.05), and Tabitha (23:27.33), in the scoring. All five ran season's bests.
At this juncture, the midpoint of the season, three meets remain to prepare for the October 29th Atlantic Sun Conference Championship. Each of them offers a different challenge to our Hatters, and each will help prepare them for their season-ending trial.
This coming Friday Stetson will run the College 5K on the first day of the two-day FL-Runners Invitational. Sponsored by the running-oriented website of the same name (flrunners.com), it is being held at the Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville. This event features an entry list of 168 teams (high school and college), a fast, flat course-one of the most scenic in Florida-and the only time this year that both college men and women will compete on the same 5K course. Thus, it gives them, our men at least, a rare opportunity to go all-out after running 40% longer for two straight meets. This sets up the distinct possibility of team-wide personal bests.
Andrew Epifanio, who ran his (then) 5K college best at this meet in 2010, in anxious to go back.
"I'm looking forward to this race, because it's a fast course, and I have a good chance of setting a PR."
Like Andrew, Maria has her sights set on lofty goals. Only one Stetson runner, Colleen Mulholland, has run a faster cross country race since Harper has been at Stetson (18:55), and Harper would like to eclipse that. In her favor, Harper ran an 18:49 in a road race last spring. But is Chain of Lakes all that it seems?
"FLR is a flat course," Maria opened, "and always has potential for fast times, but it is often deceiving. For one, that coastal Titusville wind always presents a challenge. Moreover, I'd say the mental aspect of the course makes it the most difficult: the finish line is visible to the runners for pretty much the whole last mile. For some reason this has always done me more harm than good. In this regard, it is a tough course with good competition, which can make for great preparation for future competitions."
The next to last challenge before the conferences will be the Asics Invitational at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach. Its course is one of the most difficult in the state, mostly because both the 5K and 8K are dissected by a hill(s) that are uncharacteristic of the area's topography, and may be the result of the college's construction years ago. If a runner's dread were analogous to a landscape, it would appear as Embry-Riddle's steep hills and generous amounts of sand.
Once again, Maria: "Embry-Riddle's race directors always come up with a ridiculous course, and I'm interested to see what they come up with this year. The walls--I mean hills--interspersed throughout the 5 kilometers, along with the sand, concrete, and uneven footing, make it difficult to traverse, but in the end, I suppose, it helps prepare us for anything."
The final tune-up before the team's trip to Nashville, Tennessee will be the UCF Invitational on the evening of October 14th. In a recent telephone conversation, UCF Asst. Cross Country Coach Paul Brown described the course to me.
"The course is mostly flat. There's one little area where you have to go down and up-one incline-but it's sandy. That makes it tough to run on." He adds, "The women run a 6K, and an 8K for men. At least a mile of it is sandy. For the women it is the only 6K in the state, and for the men a good meet to get in before the conferences."
Add it all together, and you get the cross country course for the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship; Vaughn's Gap. It is part of the 2,684 acre Edwin and Percy Warner Park-the largest municipal park in Tennessee-and only 9 miles from downtown Nashville. Because it is the home course of Belmont University, the event's sponsor, I asked their Head Coach Jeff Langdon to describe it.
"Half of the course is nice and flat. The back half of the course is extremely hilly; from miles 1 ½ to 2 ½ , and then again from 3 ½ to 4 ½."
When questioned about the weather, he was equally honest. "You never know about the weather. Who would have thought that it would be 98 degrees at ten in the morning in Deland, when we had the A-Sun there two years ago? Our average, in the mornings, for that time of the year it will probably be 45 to 50 degrees."
Going one step further, I asked a coach who was at the Vanderbilt Commodore Classic, on September 17th, which uses the same course. That team too, will be at the A-Suns in October.
"I would say the Vaughn's Gap course (VGC) is pretty tough. My runners had that jello-lactate feeling you get when you run up and down a mountain. UF's course is more rolling hills; while the VGC is more like you go up a mountain, and then go down a mountain, and then go up again. I think my team had a "holy moly" feeling running the course. Everyone looked heavy at the end, even the front runners and the Belmont runners. Now that the team had the experience of heavy leg racing and they know what to expect, I think they are ready to run through the shock."
Will the Hatters be ready? After a season-long buildup, we can be sure that when the going gets tough, the tough will get going.