As the Atlantic Sun Conference Cross Country Championship approaches, the Hatters runners are preparing for their last race of the season.
For the three seniors, it is the final race of their careers at Stetson University.
Kyle Burton, Brian Dughi and Alyssa Thompson came in together as freshmen in the fall of 2009, hailing from across Florida. They will all go out together when they run their final collegiate race this weekend.
Joe Matuszczak has been the Hatters' head coach for two years and has had the opportunity to see the three develop as not only runners, but also as young adults. What he has seen most from when he arrived until now has been a change in attitude and dedication from the three seniors.
"Kyle and Brian have been key members of the men's program," Matuszczak said. "They help introduce the freshmen to a new distance, which is especially important on the men's side. They have both grown up as runners and, they are headed for bright futures in life after college.
"Alyssa has improved by leaps and bounds since I have been here. She has taken the role of a leader much more seriously this year and has helped the new crew of freshmen. She understands when to be soft-spoken and when to stand out as a leader. That is very important to have for such a young team. She will be missed as a runner and as a leader."
Burton, Dughi and Thompson began their Stetson careers in Jacksonville at the JU Duals (September 4, 2009) and now their four years are about to end this Saturday in Fort Myers. The three runners said they have no regrets and have enjoyed their time as members of the Stetson cross country team.
"It's been fun, but there have definitely been times where it has been interesting," Burton said. "It's not easy and there a lot of things you have to sacrifice. I came here to run and get a good education, and I have done both, so I am happy with it."
For most college students, there are a number of choices of organizations and groups to fill time outside of the classroom. Being a student-athlete is one such choice, but one that limits other opportunities. The three seniors are glad they chose cross country because running gave them goals and achievements to work towards. It also gave them something to stay committed to.
"I enjoyed being a student-athlete, it has helped me get more involved," Thompson said. "It paved a path for me the last four years, and has kept me on a set-schedule. Being a student-athlete has allowed me to achieve my goals and I can look back on this as a good memory."
While the seniors have enjoyed their time at Stetson, it has not been an easy journey. Over the course of their four years on the team, they have had three different head coaches. The seniors agreed they were affected by the coaching changes because of the different training methods each coach implemented.
"I always believe continuity is an important thing in running," Burton said. "I think if I had one constant system at Stetson, it would have been the best situation for me. Having a coaching change forces you to get used to a new training system, so it's like starting all over again."
The seniors agree that the Hatters have found a coach in Matuszczak who can take the program to the next level. The team rules he has put in place are keeping the members of the squad dedicated to running and staying in shape.
"I think that through all four years, Joe's system has been the best," Dughi said. "There has never been any negative reinforcement since I have been on the team, but Joe has enforced the three-strike rule and there hasn't been anything like it in the past."
Matuszczak has been busy getting the team ready for its final race of the season. The last time the Hatters competed was on October 12 at the UCF Black & Gold Invitational in Orlando. Since then, the Hatters have been focused on preparations for the Atlantic Sun Conference race.
Matuszczak said the team is peaking at the right time and this could be a good meet for the seniors if they go out and run like it really is the last race of their careers.
"This is their last race, so there should be no holding back," Matuszczak said. "All three of them have had some nagging injury or minor setback here and there, but they are healthy and should be focusing on just running a great race. They have shown that they are ready to post some good times and it is very possible for them to set personal bests at the conference meet."
The three seniors have confidence that this will be one of their best races of the season. They have been training hard for the last couple weeks and are in the best shape they have been in all season. Those old, nagging, injuries are no longer an issue.
"I am in the best shape I have been in since I got to college," Dughi said. "I am familiar with the course, and, since I am peaking at the right time, this should be a good race for me as well as the rest of the team. We all have a chance to run personal bests."
The Atlantic Sun Conference Championship race will be hosted by Florida Gulf Coast this Saturday, October 27, at the Buckingham Property. This course will not be unfamiliar territory to the Hatters, who ran their first race of the season on the same course back in August.
That experience gives Stetson an idea of what to expect from the course, and should set up a successful effort.
"As a whole, it is an advantage to run a course before a big meet," Thompson said. "You learn the ins and outs and you understand how to run it. It is a definite mental boost and gives us an upper hand on other teams."
The women's race is set to begin at 8:45 a.m. with the men's race to follow at 9:30 a.m.Those three seniors will cross the finish line wearing the Stetson colors one last time.