The strength of the men’s cross country team truly lies in its numbers.
Last season, the Lions boasted several historic performances, which culminated in the team’s 17th-place finish at the 2012 National Cross Country Championships, with three Columbians placing in the top 100. And the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association has confidence that the Light Blue will hit the ground running again this season, as the national preseason rankings saw the Light Blue come in at No. 18, an all-time high for the program.
Alongside Princeton at No. 10, the Lions are one of two Ivy League programs in the top-20 preseason rankings this year.
Head Coach Willy Wood said that gaining this national recognition was great news going into the team’s fall events, the first of which is this Saturday at the Stony Brook Invitational in Stony Brook, N.Y.
“Everybody was excited, primarily from the perspective that we have been able to accomplish a lot over the last two years, and as a result the level of respect for our program has grown greatly,” he said.
Although running ultimately consists of individual performances, the program’s ability to foster a sense of camaraderie and teamwork between runners has been essential in attaining the program’s depth and team-over-individual attitude in the past few seasons.
Junior middle distance runner Daniel Everett attributes the team’s recent successes to the number of high-caliber runners in the program, as opposed to the skills of just one or two runners.
“Part of what makes us great is our depth,” he said. “Some programs just have a standout number one runner who is going to go out there and be an All-American. We didn’t have any All-Americans last year, yet we finished so highly at nationals, which speaks to how deep our team is as a whole.”
Everett added that the team’s bond extends far beyond spending time together at practice and meets, with regular dinners at John Jay after practice, and most runners opting to live together in Columbia dorms.
Wood said that the close friendships on the team strengthen the willpower needed to complete draining distance events.
“We try to keep the focus entirely on the team, and while it is an individual performance, in cross country you have to endure huge amounts of pain,” Wood said. “If you are just enduring the pain for yourself, you are only going to get so far, but I think we endure the pain for one another. Everyone is fully aware of the fact that you are doing it for your teammate and your best friend.”
Despite losing three key runners from last season to graduation—Leighton Spencer, Mike Murphy and Mark Feigen—distance runner Jacob Sienko, who placed 74th at last year’s National Championships, returns as a senior this year in great form for the fall.
Wood sees Sienko as a major contributor to the program’s team-first mentality.
“Jake definitely sets the tone for us from the perspective that he does the most work on the team,” Wood said. “He runs the most mileage. At the end of practice, for instance, when we’re running for two hours, he’s running for two hours and 21 minutes. He’s a total team player.”
Wood also cited the potential in the younger runners who completed a strenuous summer program as reasons for the team’s budding success. They have been back on campus since NSOP, regularly running between 70 to 100 miles a week. Wood particularly noted the efforts of sophomores Dustin Wilson and Ben Golestan, who will likely break into Columbia’s top-five runners this season.
While some younger runners will surely play a larger role for the Light Blue this season, Wood sees a similar team-first mentality in this year’s squad that contributed to its top-20 national finish last fall.
“The vibe of the team is definitely different, but the fundamental qualities are definitely in place,” Wood said. “These are people that work extremely hard, that make many sacrifices to put us in a position to do well. They want to achieve as a collective unit, so that hasn’t changed at all.”
Even when prompted about his own personal aspirations this season, Everett insisted that his attention in preseason training has been focused on improving for the benefit of his program.
“The team goal comes first,” he said. “And I haven’t thought much beyond improving upon how our team finished last year. That is goal number one.”