Union standout Alex Graffunder said he’d dreamt of being an NCAA Division I runner since he was in middle school.
Last week, that goal not only became a reality, it was achieved by joining one of the nation’s elite track and cross country programs: Oregon.
The Bobcats’ senior verbally committed to the Ducks on Jan. 30, joining a men’s program that has a combined 11 indoor and outdoor track national titles, six cross country championships and has produced star athletes throughout the years such as Steve Prefontaine, Galen Rupp and Ashton Eaton, to name a few.
“It’s something I’ve dreamt about since sixth grade,” Graffunder said of competing at the D-I level. “Late junior and early senior year it started becoming a reality.”
Graffunder, who in the last year has won individual state championships in cross country and in the 3,000-meter run in track, had recently been in contact with Boise State, Washington State and Portland, as well as Division II Western Oregon.
But he turned heads and drew the attention of Oregon associate head coach Andy Powell at the cross country championships in November. His time of 15:33 was not only good enough to only run away with the 3A/2A/1A title, but was the fifth-best time in the state, regardless of classification. The time, in fact, would have earned him a state title in the 4A and 6A races.
“I was one of the fastest guys in the state in that particular race regardless of division,” he said. “I think Coach Powell noticed that.”
Oregon wanted to reach out to Graffunder after seeing the stellar performance, but he said there was just one problem: the team couldn’t find him. Or at least, his contact information.
“They had to be creative in how to contact me. They couldn’t find my phone number or email,” he said. “One of the coaches had to contact me on Instagram.”
That coached reached out to get some contact information. A couple days later, Graffunder’s phone rang.
“I got a call from a Eugene number. It was a call from Coach Powell. We planned a visit for mid-January,” he said.
Graffunder had already taken trips to visit some of the other D-I schools on his docket, but said the visit to Eugene sold him.
“I got to spend a couple days with the team and the coach,” he said. “I fell in love with the team. They’re like family. Coach Powell’s résumé is one of the best I’ve seen. I believe he can help me reach my goal.”
Union head cross country coach Steve Sheehy said the Ducks reaching out to Graffunder is part of what makes his story and rise to the D-I level special.
“It’s rare. It’s an honor to just be called. He went down there for his official visit and went some other places as well. They wanted him enough to bring him down for a visit,” Sheehy said. “I think it’s amazing. For a kid to be able to run in college at any level is amazing. For them to get to run at D-I is even more incredible. For that Division I school to be University of Oregon, that’s the top. I’m pretty happy for him.”
The commitment to Oregon comes on the heels of what was a challenging 2016-17 season for Graffunder. Then a junior, he suffered a stress fracture in the final weeks of the cross country season, which forced him to miss the state meet and to slowly work his way back during the track season.
“Last year he had a tough year,” Union track coach Jay Blackburn said. “He had the injury and that really kind of weighed on his mind and had him questioning whether he was a runner. It’s tough to come back from those kinds of things. He got that monkey off his back come track season.”
Graffunder not only worked his way back to claim the 3,000 title, but then had the dominant performance in the state cross country meet in the fall, a testament, his coaches said, to his work ethic.
“His determination is what did it,” Sheehy said. “Obviously he has to have a certain level of talent, but he’s not the most talented trunner I’ve had. But he is the most determined. And it’s not just the short-term determination. It’s everything else that he does in the offseason. His training. How he eats. How he rests. His weights program. It’s like this ability for him to apply what he wanted to do over years. Years of toil, really. What set him apart was his ability to do it year after year through the ups and down and keep chasing that dream he was after.”
“I’ve seen it before. But it’s not very common, that’s for sure,” Blackburn said of Graffunder’s level of drive. “It’s very special to have what he’s got. Only the most successful have it. That’s one thing that that drive does is it enables these kids.If you work hard like these kids you’ll be able to maximize what you have.”
Graffunder said the injury taught him how to train differently and how to better take care of his body.
It also sparked him.
“It lit a fire in me. It made me want to prove to everyone that the injury wasn’t going to keep me down,” he said.
While it’s not set in stone, Graffunder said he envisions running the 5K and/or the 10K in track, and of course, running cross country.
His ultimate goal is to be contending for a national championship by his junior or senior year.
And he believes Oregon has what it takes to get him there.
“Oregon has so many resources at their disposal. I feel like my potential as a runner could skyrocket from the things they have,” he said. “I feel that is going to help me improve a lot.”