It is all or nothing for the Occidental men’s and women’s cross country teams when they head to Salem, OR. Nov. 12 for the Division III West Regional Championships. The race is their first and only chance to compete at this year’s Division III National Championship. Qualifying for the championship is determined entirely by a team’s performance at the regional meet — all previous races throughout the season serve as preparation. According to head coach Robert Bartlett, a cross country season tends to be a big crescendo that builds up to a single qualifying race. After 11 years of coaching the sport, he still finds it dramatic.
“You have one shot, one moment, and you’re not gonna get it back,” Bartlett said. “Two weeks later, you won’t be playing the same team again. You get one chance, so you better take advantage of it.”
In preparing for this one race, the men’s and women’s teams have seen relative success during the semester. Throughout most of this season, Occidental has held a top 10 ranking within the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Their most recent race, the SCIAC Championship, took place Oct. 29, where the women’s team placed third and the men’s team placed fourth. The team has also doubled the number of all-conference runners from last year, which is determined by how many runners finish in the top 20 at the conference championship.
Maintaining both academic and athletic success is a consistent challenge for cross country runners, each crescendo building up simultaneously. An important part of Bartlett’s role as head coach is reminding the team to work toward their pre-season goals. Ultimately, he attributed the success of this season to the composition of the team itself.
“I think we have some talented people, who work really hard. I think it’s really just that simple,” Bartlett said.
His coaching plan includes staying focused on the team, not opponents, as well as maintaining confidence. Bartlett explained that the team is still relatively young, and accredited the occasional underperformance this season to inexperience. The success of this semester has been particularly encouraging to Bartlett. He believes the team has still not reached its full potential.
Eva Townsend (junior), one of the women’s team’s co-captains, emphasized the importance of positivity. She has found that staying focused while the season gets more intense can be difficult, but for her, the pride and satisfaction from finishing a race are worth it. As one of two upperclassmen on the women’s team, Townsend echoed Bartlett’s optimism about the team.
“By far, this is the best team I’ve seen in my time at Oxy,” Townsend said. “I’m really proud of how we’ve done, and I’m also excited to see what we can do next year.”
Brody Barkan* (sophomore) is another source of the team’s success. Originally a middle-distance track runner, Barkan took up cross country for the first time this semester simply to stay in shape during the off-season. At the SCIAC Championship, his best race all season, he was the men’s top finisher, placing sixth overall. Additionally, Barkan was named the SCIAC Newcomer of the Year and received first-team all-SCIAC honors.
Barkan described cross country as one of the most mentally exhausting sports he has ever experienced. One of his major struggles has been learning how to pace his stride for cross country rather than track. He commended team leaders Keenan Leary and Austin Sankaran for helping him transition to the new sport.
“They’ve been such awesome leaders and supporters, who’ve really helped me find my pace and position,” Barkan said. “Because they know cross country so well, all I’ve had to do is just follow those two guys and it’s primed me for success.”
Teammate support has influenced Barkan both on and off the field. One element of cross country that is distinct from track, in his experience, has been the potential to operate as a unit during a competition.
“A big part of cross country racing is working in packs. … The teams that race individually tend to not run well,” Barkan said. “It’s amazing how if you’re alone, you don’t know if you can run this fast, but when you’re running next to the guys, the energy really carries you along.”
*Barkan is a Weekly staff member.