First-years show improvement at Pomona-Pitzer

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Occidental’s men’s and women’s cross-country teams competed Saturday at the Pomona-Pitzer Invite, finishing in sixth and ninth, respectively. With NCAA Division I, II and III teams racing, most runners were slightly disappointed by the results of the invite but optimistic about the trajectory of the season.

The men’s team started slowly in the first 400 meters of the race and finished by attacking the course in the final two miles of the 8k. The women’s team similarly struggled to push through the crowd of 192 runners at the start but finished strong. The race was the first full-length 6k for 11 out of 13 starters on the women’s team.

Co-captain of the men’s team and top runner Tommy Warfel (senior) attributed the slow start for both teams to a lack of mental focus. He said that with small changes — like breaking out of the start faster and maintaining the pack mentality — the men’s team will do significantly better in future meets.

Head coach Rob Bartlett also has faith in the talent shown so far this year.

“With both genders there are a few little tactical things we have to fix in the next few weeks,” Bartlett said. “I have hope, though, that when we do make those adjustments we are going to surprise many people with what we’re capable of doing.”

Bartlett, now in his 11th season at Occidental, said his coaching philosophy is three-pronged. While the physical and tactile aspects of cross-country are fairly straightforward to train for, Bartlett emphasized that the fortitude that it takes to run consistently comes from a mentality that can take anywhere from three weeks to three years to cultivate.

“You’d think by now I’d have it all figured out, but its always just a process, every race is different,” Aaron Sugimoto (junior) said. “They say race the first couple miles with your head, the last couple with your heart. That’s how we race, as a pack for the first three miles and then [pushing] forward for the last two.”

According to Bartlett, Warfel (Pomona-Pitzer Invite, 30th, 26:19.92) has finally achieved that prime mix of physical fitness, mental strength and experience. He achieved confidence through a string of good races last track season and asserted that the hardest aspect of running was to stay with the front runners amidst self-doubt.

“When you’re in the last two miles of the race, you really have to trust the other team members, trust them to stay with you and yourself to stay with them, and trust that you are all working your absolute hardest.” Warfel said. “It’s easy to revert back to the mental state where, when you start to feel bad, it’s easy to go slow. That’s normal, but a lot of the sport is pushing through that.”

For the men’s team, following Warfel’s top score for Occidental were Tristan Santos (first year) (37th, 26:40.32), Keenan Leery (sophomore) (49th, 26:44.26), Austin Sankaran (sophomore) (58th, 26:55.27) and Sugimoto (62nd, 26:59.13). Scoring in cross-country comes from tallying the top five runners’ placings and adding them together to gain the least possible points. Thus, the four behind Warfel must move closer to his time in order for Occidental’s team to continue to improve, according to Bartlett.

“[Continuing to succeed] is a matter of pushing away as quickly as you can those negative thoughts,” Sugimoto said. “Rob says they aren’t something you can ignore, and it’s okay to be nervous, you’re always going to be nervous. You just have to acknowledge it.”

For the women’s team, Roxanne Valle (first-year) placed first on the team and 27th overall, with a time of 23:04.27 for the 6k. The scoring pack was dominated by first-years Natalie Groldwahl (94th, 24:42.42), Sarah Ruiz (104th, 24:59.88) and Erika Schell (114th, 25:23.15). Eva Townsend (sophomore) (59th, 23:45.12) was the second-best finisher among the Tigers. According to Bartlett, the women’s team is more competitive this year than last year. But he said they also must bond more as a team in order to set their sights higher.

“Really simply, [getting better] comes from getting to know each other and getting to like each other,” Bartlett said. “And just having the confidence that you can run with someone, and [realizing that] being pushed by them is a good thing.”

The men’s team’s goals include a top-three finish at SCIACs, then success at a regional and, potentially, a national level. Claire Shellem (junior) said she hopes the women’s team remains competitive, as well.

Santos said the current rebuilding process will create the framework for years to come after the men’s team lost their top three runners last year to graduation. Townsend added that the sheer amount of first-years provided greater depth for the team and she commended the strength of Bartlett’s recruiting strategy last year. However, because both teams are made of so many new faces, Bartlett thinks that gaining experience and bonding as a team is a long-term process.

Last Saturday marked mid-season, the time of year when incoming athletes start to develop flow not only in cross-country but also in their first year of college. Several first-years emphasized that the team becomes essential to experiencing not only 5 a.m. Wednesday practices but also the start of first semester mid-terms and college social life.

“Academically and athletically, even socially, I really look up to the captains,” Santos said.

Returning runners were equally supportive of the first-years. Warfel talked about his own experience finding comfort at the cross country house as a first-year. Sugimoto and Townsend spoke of the new runners as exciting additions, while others added that the first-years contributed to the quirky personalities and running talent already seen on the teams.

The cross country teams return to action Oct. 17 for their first SCIAC Multi-Dual Meet at La Mirada.