By Ralph Epifanio
Among the eleven members of the Atlantic Sun Conference - Belmont, Campbell, East Tennessee State, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, North Florida, USC Upstate, Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer, and Stetson - only the latter three lack Track and Field programs to complement their Cross Country teams.
It is generally believed that having both fall and spring programs not only attracts a stronger pool of runners, but also increases the overall success of the school's running program. But is that conclusion necessarily valid? And could there be a bright side to a sport that is limited to one season-as most are-in order for its participants to focus on the main reason for attending college, academics?
"Because we don't have track at Stetson, it allows for a lot more flexibility regarding an athlete's schedule and training," explained freshman Andrew Epifanio. "(In spring) we meet two days a week to keep consistency, but the other days we run on our own, which allows us to train on our own schedule, and adjust our workouts as needed. It also allows us to focus more intently on our course work, resulting in an excellent average GPA for our team."
The 2010-2011 Stetson Hatters give ample evidence of that. Epifanio is among the first year student-athletes who, as a group, had a spring semester GPA of 3.274 (3.153 for the women). Taken as a whole, the Men's and Women's cross country teams ranked third and first, respectively, with their 3.20 and 3.373 (cumulative) 2010-2011 GPAs, among Stetson athletic teams. Plus, seven men (Matthew Ady, Kyle Burton, Peter Davis, Andrew Epifanio, Matthew Gort, Deryck Greene and Joshua Morton) and eight women (Stephanie Bird, Jasmine Chalashtori, Maria Harper, Shannon Harrell, Katrina McKay, Kelsey Munson, Alyssa Thompson, and Olena Vlasyuk) earned A-Sun Academic All-Conference honors for the fall season.
The "off season," however, is not all academics for our SU Harriers. Despite "time off the clock," athletic enthusiasm does not wane. Building upon an atmosphere of hard work and dedication that is the trademark of coaches Mallory Dunn and Joe Mautusczak, running continues year round for this squad. Three athletes in particular rededicated their efforts with each passing week, resulting in a cascade of new (current) team bests. For the men, Kyle Burton now has the fastest 5K time (16:14.50) and Andrew Epifanio has new 5K, 4 mile, 10K, and ten mile personal bests (16:36, 22:21, 34:21, and 60:58, respectively); Maria Harper lowered her 5K PR-and the current Women's team fastest time-to 18:49.
The list, however, does not end with these three. Stephanie Bird, for example, used the spring to build her endurance by doing triathlons.
"I am training for the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which will take place on June sixth," she told me. "The race is in San Francisco, and is a pretty grueling one. The distances are a 1.5 mile swim, 18 mile bike, and an 8 mile run."
"Vacation" will bring yet another opportunity for Bird to train.
"Over the summer, I will be an intern for USA Triathlon out in Colorado Springs. It is a paid internship, and I will be living at the Olympic Training Center. Colorado is a great place to train, and I am looking forward to experiencing the altitude. I have never been anywhere that is at high altitude, so things may get interesting. This internship will allow me to get great experience within the business realm, and some amazing training for the cross country season."
And perhaps her workouts will include an SU training partner, who resides in Colorado Springs.
"Shannon Harrell lives out there, and she is 20 minutes away from where I will be, so we will definitely be getting together."
"Getting together" is a theme that is familiar to Bird, even when competing locally.
"Stephanie and I competed in the Warrior Dash together on January 30th," said Maria Harper. "I ended up being the female champion (there was a two-day total of 11,652 runners) for the obstacle course 5K, and it was a lot of fun."
According to its on-line race application, the Warrior Dash is described as "3.02 hellish miles," requiring the survival of 12 obstacles for its completion: Alligator Alley, Rio River, Knee-high Hell, Slithering Swamp, Palmetto Prison, Hay Fever, Cargo Climb, Deadweight Drifter, Treacherous Typhoon, Hell's Hill, Warrior Roast, and Muddy Mayhem. After that, no doubt the next cross country meet should seem like a "walk in the park."
But because of academic requirements, "fun" comes in well-measured doses to Harper. She is a pre-med student and a Bonner Scholar, with a lot of school work and even more community service work to complete.
"I admit that not having a track program enables me to put my heart and soul into my other passions," she continued. "Not that I forget about running; it's still one of my priorities, but without a strict track program I'm able to place my focus elsewhere for a semester without worry of losing my spot on the cross country team."
Equally challenged by academic requirements, Kyle Burton-he is self-described as a "biochemistry major, with an eye towards medical school"-has also found the time to intensify his training enough to set, and reset, lifetime bests at the 5K, or 3.1 mile, distance. Unlike Bird and Harper, however, he has turned his running focus toward the track. His times have come as an "unattached" entrant at several Florida collegiate meets.
Andrew Epifanio, on the other hand, loves road races-with an occasional beach race thrown in for variety-and this spring firmly established himself as one of the top runners in the Deland-Daytona area. He won nine of the eleven road races that he entered, including eight straight, and finished second overall in the other two. He also won first place in the 15-19 Age Group in the Daytona Area Grand Prix, despite missing all of the fall GP races because of his commitment to Stetson Cross Country.
"Road racing is a very different culture, and it's quite a nice change from everything else," he said. "The races are a refreshing break, and allow me to race competitively, while still maintaining a more relaxed mind-set, because of the atmosphere that surrounds them."
This spring, all four-Bird, Harper, Burton and Epifanio-were among the regulars at intense, pre-dawn Wednesday morning workouts on a local high school track. These efforts have returned big dividends, even though they came "between seasons."