Jefferson P. Nolan
They’re all running to win.
The Cal Poly men’s and women’s cross country program is one of the most accomplished teams at Cal Poly. The men’s team has earned 11 Big West Titles within the last 14 years. The women’s team is off to a dominant start in 2012, helping the Mustangs sweep the UC Santa Barbara Lagoon Open at Sept. 1.
The women won by a narrow margin, 29-33, and the men’s team defeated their opposition, 23-45.
Four of the winning five runners in the men’s race were Mustangs. Junior Chris Frias earned second place timing 24 minutes, 56.04 seconds. Junior Sean Davidson placed third with a time of 25:00.58, and senior David Cardona finished fourth at 25:16.76.
“The team as a whole is a really strong unit,” Sean Davidson said. “We look up to (Cardona), but we all help each other out and lead each other.”
True freshman Laura Hollander set a course record (16:42:12), outrunning second place Daniella Moreno by almost a minute. Her run was instrumental in the Mustang’s victory.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Hollander said. “It’s always the best feeling to go out there and race, and it’s been really fun.”
At the Pac 12 Preview on Sept. 21, Hollander once again stepped up for the women’s team and individually finished first.
Hollander reinforced her record-setting pace while also helping the team finish sixth at the Robinson Ranch Golf Course.
Senior Vanessa Hancock returned this season after an injury last year to become the second Cal Poly athlete to finish the race with a time of 18:20.
On the men’s side, Chris Frias was the first to cross the finish line for the Mustangs, finishing eighth at the meet to help the team place fourth in the race. Davidson followed in 13th place, and Blake Ahrold was the third Cal Poly runner to finish.
Historically, Cal Poly cross country teams have been late bloomers, usually competing in the conference meets at a different pace than from earlier in the season. But Mark Conover, the director of track and field / cross country, is once again looking to lead his program to victory.
Hired part-time in 1996, Conover eventually became full-time in 2003. In 2009, he assumed his current job title.
Conover, in his heyday, ran on the professional level and made the Olympic team in 1988.
He won the Olympic trials for the marathon and competed in Seoul, South Korea. Battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma during the end of his professional running career, Conover also knows what it’s like to fight for his life.
“Running is a great metaphor for life,” he said. “It teaches you the process along the way. There are good days and bad days, but you have to remain focused on the prize at the end. Running was the ace up my sleeve when I had to battle chemotherapy.”
Conover’s competitive athletic career also had its influence on his method of coaching.
“I’ve been where they’ve been,” Conover said. “I’m empathetic to what they’re going through. (Being an athlete) is not necessarily what makes someone a valuable coach. But it can help form a bond with the student athlete.”
During the 2010-11 season, Conover added assistant coach Kelly Strong to the cross country program. Formerly acting as the assistant coach at Washington, Strong has already made a tremendous impact on the women’s team.
With that help, Conover, along with the team, are is hoping to bring the women’s squad to a new level.
“Ever since assistant coach Kelly has come to the program, the women’s team has skyrocketed,” Ahrold said. “There’s been tremendous improvement, so there’s great things to see from them in the future.”
And even as a freshman,Hollander knows they’re a force to be reckoned with.
“We know how much potential we have, so we’re just working hard to build our team up,” Hollander said. “Over the next few years we’re just going to get stronger and stronger.”
Cal Poly’s cross country program meets next on Sept. 29 at the Stanford Invitational before partaking in the Wisconsin invitational on Oct. 12.
Beyond that, the Mustangs will look to continue their success in the Big West championships, which will be held at UC Riverside on Oct. 27 this season. With that goal in mind, the Mustangs are two events into their schedule. And if it’s any indication of what’s to come, the Mustangs insist they’re going to make some noise come championship time.
“Keep following us,” Davidson said. “We’re going to do big things.”