By Rob Daniels
UNCGSpartans.com staff writer
The UNCG men's and women's cross country teams are headed to Boone, N.C., again this weekend, but it would be misleading to say “This One Counts” as if the last visit didn’t.
When the teams take to the course at Appalachian State, they’ll be seeking Southern Conference championships, and they figure to be in contention at least in part because of a team-bonding, three-day mountain training session in preseason. Everything was on the table: goals, fears, inspirational quotations, even rope.
The Spartans believe they clicked over those days, and now things come full circle. Give or take a few degrees.
“They’re probably the best teams I’ve had at UNCG,” said Linh Nguyen, who is in his fourth season as head coach and ninth at the university. “We’re hoping to be in the mix for a win. It’s possible for us to be in the mix on both sides.”
Instead of scheduling a competitive event in Boone, Nguyen took his teams to the area for a form of bootcamp in running shoes. It seems to have made the greatest difference with the women, who finished seventh in the conference championships last year and were picked for the same spot in preseason 2010 by the league’s coaches.
When not running, the student-athletes openly enumerated individual and team goals. They constructed a hula hoop with string that they termed a “dream-catcher” for use during the season. Before each event this fall, team members would write down their concerns about the upcoming competition, deposit the paper in the makeshift machine and free their minds of the anxiety.
“This year, it seemed like the girls coming in wanted to be so much better in the conference,” said Ashley Schnell, a transfer from Coe (Iowa) College who redshirted last season. “I don’t recall what we finished last year, but I think we have the potential to win it this year.”
The other tangible idea that sprang from the retreat was the rope. Each athlete took a piece of it and agreed to tie a knot in her section upon reaching an individual goal. That way, progress would be visible… for some.
“Some people feel they’ve accomplished more,” Schnell said. “I am hard on myself, so I don’t have that many knots on mine. I feel like I can do better.”
Schnell’s presence – she concentrated on her other passion, the violin, last year – has undeniably added to the group. She set school records at Coe, a Division III school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and has already been named Runner of the Week twice in the SoCon. Her most recent performance, a third-place showing at an event in Charlotte, helped the Spartans take second place behind Florida State in the 20-team field.
That race was the only repeat from the 2009 schedule, but it’s a good indicator of the Spartans’ improvement. This year, three athletes – Tiffany Garber, Shaina Sumney and Kerry Hartman – all shaved 20 or more seconds off the times they produced at the 2009 event.
Overall, the Spartans participated in three scored races before the league meet a year ago, finishing in the top half of one of them. This year, they’re 4-for-4 in that department, winning events of eight and five teams and taking the second-place performance in Charlotte.
“Our goal as a program has been to change the mentality and the culture,” Nguyen said. “If people want to be in the program, our expectations for them are going to be higher. And they need to align with that.
“It’s an attitude they bring to training every day. We approach training that it should not just be about getting miles in.”
The men are coming from a slightly different place, having been in the top half of the SoCon for the past few years without quite breaking through.
“We’re mostly juniors and seniors on this squad,” said Joey Thompson, a junior from Columbia, Md. “We do have more experience, and the graduating seniors are definitely ready to go out with a bang. They want to walk away with a title.”
While they didn’t partake of the same symbolic acts as the women’s team, the Spartan men used the time in preseason to discuss a difficult topic, the temptation for any struggling runner to give in to injuries late in the season.
“Fatigue is an issue,” Thompson said. “In past years, we’ll get partway through the season and start to lose focus.”
That hasn’t been the case in 2010. A month ago, the Spartans took 14th place out of 38 teams in Louisville, Ky., home of this year’s NCAA regional meet. In so doing, they beat all three of the other SoCon entrants and finished ahead of three teams from the SEC (Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt) and two from the ACC (Georgia Tech and Miami.)
In getting their own second-place effort in Charlotte most recently, the men beat Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Thompson and Mike Koech, a junior from Kenya, have been trading the role of the team’s top runner this year. Thompson recently broke the school’s 8K record in Charlotte, and Koech won the Elon Invitational in September. Both are All-SoCon candidates who figure to keep UNCG in contention for the team title.
Senior A.J. Savoia has stepped forward to become one of the league’s most improved competitors, as well.
Collectively, they trace it back to a few days in the mountains.
“It was a nice couple of days that brought us closer together,” Thompson said. “We were able to set up our goals and we’ve been sticking to them all year.”
Nguyen has been alternating this year’s training around the 40 to 50 miles of trails in and around Greensboro. The Bur-Mil Park-to-Bryan Park circuit has been popular, but the coach said no regimen has met with opposition.
“We feel we’ve always been just on the verge of competing for the title,” he said of the men. “Now people are more eager to do voluminous workouts.”
And perhaps bring back some hardware.