Men's Cross Country ? Talented, Experienced and Deep
As a rule, coaches are not an overly optimistic group. They tend to think in terms of imagined worst-case scenarios and impending disasters lurking ’round the next corner. Plan for the best, but be prepared for the worst. It comes with the territory.
NC State men’s cross country coach Rollie Geiger is no different, but even the normally taciturn Geiger has trouble disguising his enthusiasm as he readies his team for the 2007 season, which begins Friday at the Raleigh Invitational at the SAS Complex in Cary.
Don’t misunderstand. Geiger has been around long enough to have had the world roll over on him a time or two. Still, if things break right in 2007 for the Wolfpack, a squad that features a blend of experience and talent, then this could be a special season for NC State cross country, and Geiger readily admits it.
“This is a really good group of young men,” Geiger says. “It’s very fifth-year-oriented, a group with a very solid, very experienced nucleus. What we have to do as a program is to find a way for this group to become one.”
Departed senior Bryce Ruiz will be missed, especially his leadership and unifying influence, but the 2007 Wolfpack is loaded with veterans. Five all-conference runners return from the 2006 ACC champions, plus another athlete who earned All-Southeast Region honors in 2006, and another who was an All-American in 2004.
Six returnees John Crews, Stephen Furst, Wes Smith, Tibor Vegh, Bobby Mack and Chris Kollar are fifth-year seniors. Two more Gavin Coombs and Fredy Torres are fourth-year juniors. Between them, those eight athletes have won 14 ACC championship rings and earned All-ACC honors 10 times.
“We have great leadership with the upperclassmen on this team,” Geiger says. “They have athletic talent, academic strength, experience, leadership, commitment.”
Ideally, coaches would like to have their roster break down with more or less equal numbers of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. This is not an ideal world, however, and from time to time a senior class comes along that is blessed with an abundance of both depth and talent, such as this year’s group. Toss in several talented juniors and you have a team capable of achieving special things on the cross country course.
“Coaches’ lives seem to go in four-year cycles,” Geiger says. “Sometimes recruits trickle in and then sometimes you get these large classes. This is just one of those classes, and I’ve had a couple over the years that were heavily oriented in fifth-year seniors. When that happens, what a joy it is every afternoon to go out and coach them. What a joy.”
Geiger most recently coached such a group in the late 1990s. That team finished sixth in the country in 1997, eighth in 1998, and with Abdul Alzindani, Chris Dugan and Chan and Corby Pons earning All-America honors third in 1999. The supporting cast included Robbie Howell, David Patterson, Chris Pluchos, Dean Bowker, Mike Fitzula and Aaron Saft, each an All-ACC performer.
Comparing the current class to that or any other of the special senior groups Geiger has coached would be unfair and premature. Some comparisons are appropriate, however, such as talent, leadership, intelligence, and dedication.
“Those attributes are almost identical,” Geiger says. “As I said, I’ve had two or three classes of young men at the same level. The way this group approaches cross country is exactly the same as those other groups.”
The nucleus of upperclassmen returning from last year’s team is so strong and so deep that several very talented runners found themselves standing on the sidelines a year ago wondering what it takes to break into the starting lineup.
John Martinez, a redshirt-sophomore, could be the top runner for numerous cross country programs around the country, yet has been unable to crack the starting lineup at NC State through no fault of his own. Robert Bedsole is another promising redshirt-sophomore who gives the program incredible depth.
“John Martinez, who didn’t get the opportunity to line up in cross country last year, had a great track-and-field season in an event that really correlates to cross country, that being the steeplechase,” Geiger says. “John made major breakthroughs last year. Robert Bedsole was 10th in the conference in the 10k.”
Then there is a talented five-man freshman class that has its work cut out for it. Bobby Moldovan was a Foot Locker national finalist. Scott Crews, younger brother of John Crews, made all-state five times in Virginia in cross country and track and field. Greg Dame was all-state in North Carolina as a senior a year ago. Geoff King earned all-state honors in New York last season. Srini Iyer was a two-time all-conference runner in cross country at Apex High School.
While this year’s freshmen may or may not see much action on the course this season, they will play an essential role in the program’s immediate future, along with the likes of Coombs, Torres, Martinez and Bedsole.
“The other thing that I’m really pleased at is in looking towards the future of NC State men’s cross country,” Geiger says. “This is a huge year for graduation, but if you look at the core for the coming years Gavin Coombs, Fredy Torres, John Martinez, Robert Bedsole that’s a really good group to build around next year. Then, I am so pleased with this freshman class we have. They’re a good group. They remind me of the group that is fifth-year seniors. They’re more talented than I realized when I recruited them, and they’re really committed to the sport. So as I look at this program, will a freshman make that top group of seven or eight? I don’t know. But they are the future, along with that other core of underclassmen.”
NC State won the ACC championship handily in 2006. With a strong team returning, it would be easy to say the Wolfpack will be favored to defend its title in 2007. Only the Wolfpack does not look at 2007 as a potential title defense. The NC State coaches and athletes take a more forward-thinking approach to the upcoming season, based on the idea that 2007 is a new season and the 2007 team is a different team than the 2006 edition, despite all the familiar faces.
“We had some team-bonding exercises,” Geiger says. “We talked a lot about the mission statement for this team. The first sentence begins, As individuals of the pack,’ and we’re going to put a lot of emphasis on that this year, on the individuals in this program. They’re part of this group called the pack.’ They have to fit together as one. The statement follows by talking about building on and expanding our legacy.’ What that means is that we’re building on. We’re not defending; we’re building. I think everybody understands that.”
The goals for NC State cross country remain the same, always win the ACC championship (the men have won 10 of the last 12, and 14 overall), qualify for the NCAA Championships as a team at the regionals, and finish in the national top 10 (accomplished nine times since 1984). The last time the Wolfpack achieved all three goals was 2003, a gap of three years. The last time NC State went longer than three years without achieving all three of its goals was 1988-91.
Breaking that three-year gap is not what will motivate this year’s team, Geiger says. The emphasis on the team’s goals does not change from year to year. At the same time, however, everyone who has put on the uniform is aware of the program’s great tradition, including this year’s team.
“These guys understand the history of the program,” Geiger says. “Their focus is, We’ve been here four years, we’ve had some success. Let’s leave NC State accomplishing the goals we set out in 2007.’
“Tradition doesn’t win cross country meets, but it’s something that, when you put the uniform on, hopefully you can feel that this is a special program, not only for what we’re trying to accomplish this year, but for what other people, the other athletes, have accomplished over the years. These guys understand that.”