Nov. 7, 2011
Call them Generation XC. The youth movement on the men's cross country team has infused the whole group with a new energy, and a lot of fresh legs.
Out of the 23 student-athletes on the men's roster, 11 of those are college newbies. And that does not include a handful of other mid-distance freshmen who train with the team but will only be on the track roster for now. In all there is a baker's dozen of new faces among the distance crew, or nearly half of the overall squad.
The group is mostly local, with ten runners hailing from all around Washington, bringing a lot of local pride into the mix. But Head Coach Greg Metcalf and staff also reached out to California, Wyoming, and New Mexico to complete the group that could provide the foundation for UW men's distance running for the next several years.
The first thing that impresses Coach Metcalf about the newcomers is their commitment. "They're full of desire, talent, and passion for distance running," says Metcalf. "They've worked hard and they're an awesome group."
It's hard for their optimistic coach not to already gaze into the crystal ball. "If I were to look into their futures, I would think they are a group that, if they keep their nose to the grindstone and stay connected, this group four years from now can be special."
Already a few members of the large class have run their way into the travel squad and toed the starting line at big meets this season. Aaron Nelson, Meron Simon, and Dylan Morin have each run in uniform, with Nelson and Simon competing at the Pac-12 Championships in Arizona. Nelson finished fourth on the team in 37th-place, and Simon ran eighth in 67th-place. Most of the rest of the group should make their debuts during the winter and spring track seasons.
Morin, Nelson, and Tyler King served as a small sample size of the overall group inside the Dempsey Indoor last week following a 3k time trial, and what came through most was the spirit of respectful competition amongst the freshman class.
Nelson says, "If one of your teammates beats you, it's like `okay, I'm really glad you ran so well, but next time I'm coming for you, I'm right on you, and I'm going to take you down if I can.' It's just friendly, competitive, fun."
For many of the rookies, having daily competition in practice is a completely new experience. Tyler King had few training partners running for single-A level Coupeville High School. Now he is part of a team in the truest sense.
"I haven't ever been on a team with other guys who were super serious about running, so it's cool having so many other guys with similar goals," says King, who won the 1A state cross country title by thirty seconds last year.
Many of the local freshmen had raced against each other or at least were well aware of the top competitors that they now call teammates. A native of Sheridan, Wyoming, Morin is one of the out-of-staters that quickly learned he would not be an outsider for long.
Arriving on campus, Morin "was kind of amazed that there were so many freshmen guys all in the same boat; we're all basically one person. The first month we always hung out together and ran with each other." Then, he says, they want to beat each other. "It's a good support group and great for competition. You have friendly rivalries where you're like `okay, I'm not going to lose to you anymore.'
For the locals, some of those rivalries may have carried over from high school. "I know Nick Schippers outkicked me in a race by literally a couple tenths of a second junior year," says King. But how they might have perceived one another a year ago has changed over a couple months as teammates. King laughs and does not want to get into any specifics, but suffice it to say "you get misconceptions when you just race people," says King. "You only see them when they've got the game face on, and when you get to know them off the track it's cool."
When not running together through Seattle area parks, the freshmen are all housed in McMahon Hall or Haggett Hall, two adjacent dorms on the north side of campus, making it easy for anyone to meet up. The four Husky freshman girls are in the same dorms as well, adding to the large Dawg Pack.
Where such a large group could tend to remain isolated from the rest of the team, Nelson, King and Morin have been amazed at how quickly they found common ground with the upperclassmen on the team.
"The older guys have been so welcoming to us," says Nelson. "They've just opened up and accepted us so quickly. We were hanging out at their house before we even realized who they were. They told us that they liked our group and everything just clicked."
That's made life easy for Coach Metcalf. "I think our older guys have welcomed them in and they've woven themselves into the fabric of our team," he says.
Nelson, a Walla Walla native, has come on especially strong this fall, scoring for the Huskies at their past three meets. His early success has surprised even himself.
"There were a lot of nerves," says Nelson about his first Pac-12 race, "I was nervous about not doing well and all these guys being way better than me, but at the end of the race I found out I was right where I should be."
Morin had a similar feeling of awe in his first race at the Roy Griak Invite in Minnesota, where he placed 127th in a field of 220 runners.
"The amount of people running in one race, that was pretty scary for me. I could not believe there was a sea of men running faster than me," he says with a laugh. "That was definitely a huge change from high school."
Meanwhile, King, like most of the freshmen, will have to be patient before making his official cross country debut. He was on the verge of also competing attached but then sprained his ankle right before the season opening Sundodger Invitational. It was a tough setback but King is already seeing the benefits down the road.
"At first I was disappointed, because I thought I was in pretty good shape," says King. "But it could be a blessing in disguise. This way I've got four more years, three with (Aaron and Dylan) and four with a lot of other guys on the team, to get better. It's also been easier not having to miss class with traveling. I haven't raced much coming off the injury, so I'm pretty fresh still, and I learned it's not the end of the world."
Like most freshmen, all three are not too sure yet where their academics might take them. Morin says he wants to be an engineer, but exactly what kind is to be determined. Nelson and King are undecided and look like they've already heard the question one or two dozen times over the past few months. But that will certainly sort itself out a few more miles down the road.
Right now they're just happy to be surviving the first rounds of midterms and the simple matter of "just taking care of yourself" as Nelson puts it. "You're just kind of thrown out there and everything is a new experience."
Time management is the name of the game. Morin lays out the typical juggling act: "Balancing academics, athletics, a social life ... and sleep," he squeezes in at the end.
So one of the largest men's classes in program history finds its stride. Their contributions have already been significant, but the group as a whole wants to push itself to great things. With no seniors in Washington's top-seven at the Pac-12 Championships, competition amongst this group only figures to ratchet up.
"Next fall," says Metcalf, "you look at our men's group, we have made lots of progress and I think we're on the verge of running really well, but we don't lose anybody who will run at Regionals. Then we add Tyler, Nick Schippers, Jefferson Rieder, Kyle Rae, it's a long list, and I think they're a pretty talented group. But we'll see, how badly do they want it four years from now, and how much are they willing to go do to get it?"