UNDAUNTED BY HIGH EXPECTATIONS
By Pierre LaBossire
Observer Staff Writer
The Eastern Oregon cross country men know full well they will be running this season with a target on their backs.
They don't mind, and in fact, don't care that much about the hype they'll be living with all season.
The men came in second at the NAIA Nationals in Wisconsin last year to Minot State. Minot State (in North Dakota) graduated three of its top six runners from last year, while Eastern has returned most of its stars from that amazing performance.
The men know the bar has been set exceptionally high this season. Eastern is expected to be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 when the rankings come out next month.
But, for now, they've decided not to worry about that, and not get caught up in the rankings hype.
"It's nice to write home to mom about," said team member Nick Fikes. There's simply too much that can happen between now and the national championships in Kentucky in November, said Brian Crowl, a senior team leader who finished 13th at nationals last year.
But, Crowl conceded that it's out there ... it's the elephant in the living room.
"It's (a national championship) on all of our minds ... at least in the back of our minds," said Crowl. The Eastern runners can't get caught up in all that press, however, he pointed out.
There are some other extremely good teams around the country and even in the Pacific Northwest, and Eastern can't expect to simply show up and beat these types of teams just by having a strong reputation. They're going to have to earn it.
"There are at least half a dozen teams out there we're not going to take lightly, to put it mildly," said coach Ben Welch. "Even in our own region, we have to watch our backs."
The Eastern runners pointed out the team is so strong that, at the moment, most of the men are simply concerned with making the Mountaineers' squad, period.
With the quality of the runners on the Eastern squad (Welch said that six out of the top 14 cross country times in the entire history of EOU have been established by current runners), each runner is going to have to work hard just to make varsity and be with the team on the first road trip to Walla Walla at the Whitman Invitational.
A fight for a national championship? "We have to fight just to get out of La Grande," Crowl said.
The Eastern runners are good in large part because they are fiercely competitive, according to Welch. "If you played cards with us, you'd see," agreed Fikes.
However, Welch and the runners agree it's a healthy competition within the team for varsity spots, and that will make the Eastern runners stronger in the end. "They're competitive in the right way. They need to want to beat each other, but it can't be a hostile thing," said Welch.
Welch knows the national championship talk is out there and knows that as a coach he has to address it. He's told his runners that "the high expectations are just a vote of confidence."
How do the Eastern runners deal with those expectations?
"We run a lot," said Fikes.
Fikes' teammates laughed, but Crowl added, "He's got a good point. You have to get the work done first."
Crowl is one of the wildcards on the team. He got hurt late last year, and ran in track for a while with what was believed to be a sore hip. That problem was finally diagnosed as a hernia, and he had surgery in June. At first it was thought Crowl might have to redshirt this season, but Welch said he's recovering from the surgery faster than expected. Crowl will probably miss a few races early in the season as he gets back in shape, but Welch is expecting him back at crunch time.
"He's pretty determined he's going to run this season. He's our leader to a very large effect," Welch said.
Crowl said the hernia feels fine. "It's healed," he said. "It was a $3,000 piece of mesh."
The Eastern runners also return Alex "Big Al" McGladrey. McGladrey finished 11th at nationals last year. He doesn't pay that much attention to what other powerful cross country programs there are around the country. He's focused on how he and his teammates are progressing.
"I don't care how they're doing. I'd rather not know, actually," McGladrey said.
Also coming back on the team is another national All-American, Michael Greenman, who earned the honor as a freshman. Pat Egelus is another runner who placed high at nationals (99th).
Joining the varsity veterans are some extremely good runners who redshirted last season. Ian Schroeder, Tim Riley and Eric Griffiths will be fighting for varsity slots this year and should be a huge boost to the team. Joining the mix is Jacob Haas, a transfer from Syracuse University. "He's the fastest 5K high school runner I've ever had," said Welch.