A Sun Championship
By Ralph Epifanio
By my calculations, the last time I rolled into town, it was 56 days and 23 degrees ago. Since that visit ended under unhappier circumstances, I decided to change my “out-luck” on a cross-state meet and did what the locals do when it is too hot to trot; I went to an ice hockey game.
Sounds like a series of “miss-spellings” on a near-everglades experience, but not so if the hockey arena is Germain to the story. You see, when it is too hot to not, lots and lots of locals head to one of three rinks under one roof; the 7,082-seat, multi-purpose, main arena where the local Everblades team “swings into action” against its ECHL opponents; a near-seatless white bottom rink, where a well-nigh nightly stampede of visitors slide into and around a man-made frozen pond; and to the third, well-netted rink, used by various levels of puck-slappy teams, including the almost always sold-out FGCU Eagles. It was the latter that drew the attention of my five bucks.
Although FGCU has one of the most successful sports programs in the State of Florida, none of its sports has been more so than its 2012 Division 2 ACHA National Champion Eagles. If you want to cool off faster than their opponents, this is the place to sit on a hot night.
The team that went 35-2 in 2011-12 seems to have cooled off a little too much this fall, but that is, of course, the point in this tour de temp. This weekend, while thousands of locals were ice-bound in the Germain Arena, only a couple of hundred—locals and non-locals alike--made tracks to the Buckingham property, a former mental hospital, where the 2012 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship meet was held. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing, if you don’t belong at Buckingham.
Some runners did okay, some not s’okay. It was not as hot as August, but still as draining as a malalucca tree in water, and the various levels of first aid people—from teammates to coaches to FGCU sports med personnel to EMTs (IV, anyone?)—did a brisk business in treating those who were unable to cross-climate. Fortunately, lots of pre-planning (thank you very much!) prevented a lot worse from happening.
When things begin to get hot in hockey we ice the puck, but in cross country, we ice the athlete. In thinking ahead to the next season, one has to ask (one being me); How important is time and distance when a cross country race is planned? And question two is: Why take a chance?
Going off at 8:45 AM, the women ran a loop and a half around a flat, pretty much shadeless Buckingham, which worsened the woes of those already not having a good race. Not so with eventual winner Joane Pierre, formerly of Immokalee, and now running for Jacksonville University.
“Coming in, I knew it was my senior year,” explained Pierre. “It definitely motivated me that my coach from high school, the AD, and my family were here.”
It was, in fact, the very first time that her family had ever seen her run a college cross country meet. Joane’s inspired race made for a storybook ending to a family saga that began in Haiti, included an emigration that almost sidetracked—and pretty much bankrupted--a non-English speaking family by an immigration attorney, and the timely appearance of her JU coach Ron Grigg.
Since then, Grigg has been with her every step of the way.
“Joane did a great job here,” said Griggs. “She’s a very dedicated athlete, and no one works harder.”
“I just wanted to prove to the people who came out to support me that my talent is still there from high school,” Pierre explained.
While running for nearby Immokalee, Pierre was a three-time 2A state champion. She won the 1600 in 2008 (5:02.79), and both the 800 (2:14.10) and 1600 (4:56.36) in 2009.
In this race, while others wilted, she sprinted. Her finish time—17:17.5—was the fourth fastest in A-Sun Championship history, and within seven seconds of her 5K track PR of 17:10.19 (March 2nd at the UNF Spring Break Invitational).
“At the beginning, I was in a pack with a couple of UNF girls, and a pack of Lipscomb girls. I knew that if I wanted to win, I had to separate from them. I also knew that if I wanted to win, I’d have to go it alone. (Beforehand) I sat down with Ron (Grigg), and we discussed the different ways that it could go, so I knew there was the possibility that I would take the lead, and compete by myself.
“I could hear people cheering for other runners that were behind me, so I knew how close they were. I thought, ‘No, you can’t take this away from me!’ So it was a matter of my securing that position. I knew that the last 600 was the time to put on my speed, pick it up another gear, and take it home.”
Even with the conference’s top honor, she is not quite there as yet.
“Next are the (Division 1 NCAA South) Regionals. I went there my sophomore year, and it wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be. So I am going to use that as a motivation, push myself forward, and compete the way I want to.”
Having observed, and admired, the relationship between Grigg and Pierre for the past four years, I asked Ron to comment on Joane’s growth during her time at Jacksonville University. This is what he wrote:
“We identified Joane's special athletic talent just from watching her run in high school, but it was learning her personal story through the recruiting process that let me know about her special character. Visiting Joane and her family in their home in Immokalee is a day that will stay with me for as long as I live. It is clear how important their family is to one another. It is clear how much their parents have sacrificed in making it to America from Haiti, and allowing greater opportunities for their children. Being a very small part of that isn't easily describable in words.
“Just as a coach may design different training (schedules) for each athlete in the same event, so too does a coach establish different personal relationships with each individual. Every athlete has different needs and different levels of need. Learning what those are and supporting them as best as possible is the ultimate reward of being a coach.
“Joane has made appropriate incremental gains in her physical abilities and her performances across all the many events she has contested. (She has run on our school record and Penn Relays Championship of America finalist 4 x 400m relay, and she holds or has held school records for 800m, 1500m, mile, 5k on the track as well as both 5k and 6k for cross country. She has exceptional range.)
“Yet we have had opportunities to learn from races that didn't go as planned during her career. What I have learned is that I was likely trying to ‘over coach’ from a strategic stand point. I was providing too much information prior to races (splits, race plans, competitor information, course set up, etc). Joane identified this, and so for this her senior year, we agreed just to let her race. Personally, I think this reduces the pressure she puts on herself. I simply gave her one piece of information before the start of the cross country season, and that was that she has the ability to win every race she enters this year. Since then we have not discussed race strategy once, not even a single word. Before each race I ask her if she needs anything, and she always says ‘nope.’ At FSU, in our first real race of the season, she chased the leader and took the lead at 3k. She held that lead until 5k against women that had already raced three or four times this year. She ultimately finished second in a school record time for 6k. At UCF she held back a little through the mile, then took and extended the lead throughout the remainder of the race. At the conference championship she lead from about 1k on, and really separated herself from the field after the mile.
“Next up is a trip to the NCAA South Region back at the FSU 6k course, where four individuals who are not on national qualifying teams will earn a trip to the NCAA National Cross Country Championships. I'm looking forward to watching her race unfold.
“As a coach, if you do a good job as a teacher, and when an athlete matures, you can trust them to make their own race decisions. That has been and will continue to be the theme of Joane's senior year.”
And, of course, there is Joane’s point of view:
When I first met Coach Grigg, I think the number one thing that made me instantly connect with him was how caring he is as an individual. When choosing which school I wanted to go to, I wanted a school where I felt like I would be taken care of, and where I could have a relationship with the coaches, as well as being able to excel academically. And JU provided that, and more.
Whether or not he is aware of it, Coach Grigg has really been an inspiration to me. He's taught me so much more than just running. Coach Grigg has been more than a coach; he has been a best friend, a father, and most importantly--along with Coach Carson (the throwers coach)--a support system that has, literally, gotten me through my college career. I really don't know what I would have done without their guidance.
Like all relationships, Coach Grigg and I had our ups and downs, but that mostly comes from his expectations of me, and his not settling for less. I'm happy that he gave me the opportunity to contribute to his program, because through that I have made some amazing lifelong friendships and bonds, ones that I know will last a lifetime.
I sincerely hope that, when I leave, Coach Grigg will be honored with what I've done, and can proudly say that he enjoyed coaching me as his athlete. It was definitely an honor for me to represent the Dolphins, and to be able to contribute to such a wonderful program.
Finishing second, and less than six seconds behind Pierre (17:23.4), was UNF’s Shelby Kittrell.
“She”—Shelby—“did a good job,” said UNF coach, Jeff Pigg. “She was very consistent, not only in this race, but all season long. It’s nice having someone you can count on. She does all the small stuff. Once this year, she said ‘I’m sick,’ and just slept it off (then came back).”
In that vein, Shelby recapped the race from a team standpoint.
“Our team goal was the main strategy,” she said afterward. “We really trained hard together, and I enjoyed that. It has made us better.”
A highly regarded Lipscomb team came in as the team to beat, but UNF showed them no quarter, and finished a solid second.
“We definitely wanted to win,” Kittrell continued. “A lot of our girls ran our best times today. I guess people have good days, and bad days, and today we had both. Overall, everybody gave their best. I love them all.”
Shelby, a senior, described her personal way of looking at her sport:
“Just run as well as I can, and not leave anything. I don’t want to graduate with any regrets.”
During the Women’s 5K at the August 31st preview of this meet, Lipscomb’s Dani Walker—originally from Wichita, Kansas--“breezed” to a win in 18:16.5…and that was about the only breeze at the time. Her 5K PR is 16:38.53 (on the track, at the May 12, 2012 Occidental Invitational). But in her first meet, as well as her most recent, her goals were definitely not of a personal nature.
“We had a lot of team goals, such as to run strong, and (race) as a pack with the front runners, and it’s always our goal to do that. Our team race was more important than a personal victory. Lipscomb is all about team when it comes to cross country.”
That was certainly evident in August, where they placed 1-3-4-5-6-7-8 for 19 points and an overwhelming win.
“Our team really got a good preview of the course. We practiced on it several times, and it helped us build our confidence for today.”
Although she is a college junior, Dani is a “red-shirt sophomore.”
“I broke my foot in the second race of last year, at the Chattanooga Classic. I was out the whole season, but I came back pretty fast, and ran pretty well (both) indoors and out. It was exciting to be able to come back and compete that track season.”
It was in the winter/spring of 2012 that Dani showed both resilience and versatility by setting PRs in the mile (5:01.31 at the January 7th A-Sun), the 1500 (4:32.76 on April 6th at the Tiger Track Classic), the previously mentioned 5000 on May 5th, and in the 800 (2:09.73 at Georgia Tech on May 11th).
In this meet, she finished third in 17:26.0.
“I think I probably should have turned it on a little sooner, but it was a great finish. We all worked together to do the best we can.”
Dani is quite familiar with her A-Sun competitors, Joane Pierre and Shelby Kittrell, and commented on their fierce running style.
“Joane and Shelby are great competitors. We always go back and forth, so I am not at all upset with my finish.”
Women’s Team Results
Living up to their pre-season rankings, Lipscomb—with 40 points (3-5-9-11-12-14-21)—won “easily.” More impressive than their point total were their times: Dani’s 17:26; Tessa Hoefle ran 17:38.9; Kendra Lobley ran 17:55.5; Madelin Talbert ran 17:59.7; and Maggie Lawrence rounded out the top five in 18:00.3. (How many teams wished they had even one “17”?)
UNF was second with 63 (2-7-16-18-20-26-28), and Jacksonville third with 105 (1-6-25-31-42-44-45).
Joane Pierre was named the A-Sun female runner of the year; ETSU’s Katie Hirko (fourth in 17:36.8) was the freshman of the year; and Lipscomb’s Bill Taylor was coach of the year.
82 runners and ten teams scored.
The University of Northern Kentucky joins the A-Sun
Competing in the A-Sun XC Championship for the first time was the University of Northern Kentucky. Their cross country coach is Steve Kruse.
“This is my 19th season. Most of that time has been with cross country. (Right now) we only have a budget for distance, but this will be our inaugural year for women’s track.
“We were in NCAA Division 2, formerly with the Great Lakes Valley Conference,” he told me after the meet. “Our university is going through a (period of) growth that you can’t believe, and lots of eyes are on us. But we have to fight for a position in the media with the University of Cincinnati, Xavier, Miami of Ohio, and the University of Kentucky. UK is less than an hour away, and Louisville is an hour and a half away.
“All of our coaches have felt more of an internal pressure to succeed. I have changed our schedule to a more competitive one. Both the university and the athletic department have given us the tools to succeed, so we don’t want to let them down.”
Counted among his supporters is the UNK president.
“Our new president, Geoff Mearns, ran for Yale in the early ’80s, and qualified for the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, an injury prevented him from actually participating in the trials. He has been very supportive of our program, and the move to the A-Sun Conference.”
Winning for the third year in a row was University of South Carolina-Upstate senior Gilbert Kemboi. His time—24:16.7—became the fourth fastest in A-Sun Championship history. While that is nearly a minute off his best—23:22.28 at the Greater Louisville classic on October 2, 2010—his goal here was more to lead than conquer.
“We are the defending champions,” the senior sociology major explained, “and that was what we wanted to do. Everyone had to do their part. I had to do my part,”—in other words, to win—“and they did their part.”
When asked about the strategy behind his own race, he answered, “I didn’t have a specific strategy, I just ran the race. I had to wait until the race (pace) was settled, then see what I could do from there. You have to run the first mile and see what happens after that.
“I’m always on business. Running is business for me. We came all the way from Spartanburg—ten hours—on a mission: to win.”
Also there, for that same purpose, was Kennesaw State’s Nabil Hamid, an International Business major from Adis Abbaba, Ethiopia.
He enrolled in Kennesaw because “I wanted a better education, and felt he (former coach Stan Sims) was a better coach. He retired last year.”
While the coaching has changed—George Watts is the current coach--the competition has remained the same.
“My goal was to be right behind Gilbert—as close as I could get--like usual,” he said, laughing, “and win the team championship…but (this time) we came in third.”
A senior, Nabil is on schedule to graduate this year.
“I’m graduating in May, and going on to graduate school, either at Georgia State or Kennesaw. I’m going to keep competing, in road races, and maybe run some half marathons.”
In third place was 22 year old Filip Jalovy, from Brno in the Czech Republic. Last year’s A-Sun Freshman of the Year—in 2011 he finished first for ETSU, and fifth overall, in 25:17.54,—wanted to improve on his previous time, and in so doing, also his team’s finish.
“My goal was to run in the top three, and PR,”--that had been 24:54.41, from this year’s Greater Louisville, on September 29th—“and last year, we (our team) were sixth; we definitely wanted to do better than that.”
At the half way point in this race, Filip was in a four-pack consisting of himself, Natan Reuter (Kennesaw; fifth in 24:53.5), JJ Webber (NKU; sixth in 24:55.4), and Ryan Burruss (Kennesaw State; seventh in 25:01.5)that were trailing Kemboi and Hamid.
“There was a group of about four people--in third through seventh—and I wanted to go from there. In the last 2K, I took off.”
The mix that resulted pushed ETSU into second and made Jalovy’s “wish list” complete.
“We have a new coach this year, George Watts, and finished within four points of first. It was kind of bitter sweet,” he said, referring to their near miss as conference champions.
Men’s Team Results
With Gilbert’s first overall, USC was first (1-8-9-12-19-34-39; 49); Filip’s third inspired ETSU second place finish (3-4-13-15-18-21-44; 53); and Nabil’s second moved Kennesaw State into third (2-5-7-33-38-45; 85).
The lead story, however might be that of the fourth place team, host FGCU. Picked in the preseason to finish eighth, they got a whopping boost from Chris Rudloff’s 33 second PR—he pushed past team leader Argeo Cruz to finish first for the Eagles, and 14th overall—and Aaron Rojas, a 50 second best to finish 28th. Team score: 110 points.
Gilbert Kemboi earned Runner of the Year, Jared Wingerter freshman of the year, and Carson Blackwelder (USC) coach of the year.
Footnotes: This was one of those rare times in championship running when the participating athletes probably outnumbered the spectators. That was its only shortcoming. Having personal knowledge of just how much time and effort was involved in the planning and execution of this meet, which was first-class all the way, it deserved a better attendance. However, it couldn’t have been better run. Asked if she’d do it again, FGCU coach Cassandra Goodson responded, “I wouldn’t pass that up. I am just so appreciative of all those who helped: (AD) Ken Kavanagh, the FGCU administration, the athletic staff, the sports medicine team,”--I’ll second that—“the students and the community. I laid out the course a year ago, and it took months of work—collectively, as a group—but we’ve gotten a lot of compliments. I think it turned out great; I couldn’t be more pleased.” And her advice for the next school in line? “Have good people around you. And be well-organized before the meet.”