By Adam Zielonka
This article was originally published in Issue 4, Fiftieth Year of The Minstrel (October 22, 2015). Click here to view the entire issue.
Part one of three in a multiplatform series about running culture at DeSales
It’s hard to move around campus without seeing someone running. Drive down Station Avenue during daylight hours, rain or shine, and you’re likely to find students, staff or community members out for a jog. Maybe you woke up on Saturday, Sept. 12 to the unexpected sight of hundreds of high schoolers participating in a cross country meet.
DeSales is a campus on the run. And while people choose to run for a variety of reasons, any investigation into this phenomenon has to start with the university’s deliberate collection of runners—the highly successful cross country program.
On Oct. 10, the men’s and women’s cross country teams hosted their annual DeSales University Invitational. The women’s team outpaced 16 visiting teams to win their 6,000-meter home meet, as their five best finishers all placed in the top 10 competing runners. Freshman Angelina Biondo (22:40.12) and sophomore Veronica Wheeler (22:53.80) placed second and third, respectively. Both women broke the school record for fastest time on the home course.
Biondo called the achievement “surreal.”
“I was shocked. It surprises me every race I run just how fast I am compared to my high school times,” she says. “I never truly know if my time will improve from the last race; all I can hope is that my hard work at practice pays off when I’m running.”
The ladies have not placed lower than second in their five meets this year, which includes an early-season triumph at the Misericordia University Invitational. The team has several strong runners, including junior Katie Downing and freshman Meaghan Driscoll, but in the biggest spotlight is Wheeler, the MAC Rookie of the Year in 2014.
“Everything that transpired last cross country season really was a pleasant surprise for me,” Wheeler says. “With that comes a little bit of pressure to do even more than was done before, but I can only hope that I can get to that fitness level again and hopefully surpass it to reach my goals.”
The two goals she has in mind, however, are for the team: winning the MAC championship and qualifying for November’s NCAA Division III National Championships. Between her individual talent and the team’s success, neither is out of the question.
The men’s team posted a strong showing as well, placing second out of 17 teams in their 8,000-meter race. Gabe Lamm, who finished 10th place and ran the fastest freshman time (27:19.10), and Minstrel sports editor Will Edwards, who took 13th (27:25.75), led the charge.
The men are now without Nate Noll, former MAC Runner of the Year, as he completes his final year of the physician’s assistant program on a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship. They’re big shoes to fill, but Lamm and fellow freshmen Kyle Gonoude and Kyle McCann have already stepped up.
“As a freshman, being able to help out the team makes me feel really important to the guys and coaches. The team is already like a family to me and always pushes me to be my best,” Lamm says.
As both teams benefit from new runners this year, juniors and seniors attest to the speed at which they’ve seen the team grow and gel.
“At meets and at practice we all help each other succeed, and when one person is feeling down about her performance, another person is right there to pick her back up,” junior Katie Downing says.
Bulldog runners almost unanimously point to two factors that make DeSales a great cross country school. They praise men’s coach Al Weiner and women’s coach Gordon Hornig as knowledgeable and supportive. And they see the challenging home course as a big draw. McCann says it “keeps everyone honest.”
“DeSales is located in a great area for training with many hills on and around campus,” junior Brad Kilheeney adds. “My favorite cross country course is the home course.”
The course starts at the rugby and intramural field and heads up the mall, into the cornfield behind the Labuda Center. After a few loops, it returns back down the mall, past the soccer field and into the forest next to Landis Mill Rd. It then crosses to the Billera Hall side of Preston Ave. Due to construction this year, the finish line was set up just past the new turf fields, on the north side of Billera Hall.
The course’s demanding, hilly nature attracts many cross country teams to the program’s annual races. In addition to holding invitationals at the collegiate and high school levels each year, DeSales was chosen to host the Collegiate Track Conference (CTC) Championships this year, on Oct. 17, and it will be the site of the 2016 NCAA Division III Mid-East Regional Championships.
So the setting is ideal, but that doesn’t explain individuals’ passion. When asked what motivates them to run, team members gave answers as diverse as non-athletes would give.
“For me, there’s kind of a love-hate relationship with running. It can really beat you up mentally and physically, but I couldn’t imagine my life without it,” Wheeler says. “It helps to keep me sane with everything else that’s going on. A nice 90-minute run can serve as a break from the hectic homework schedule.”
“Competition is the biggest reason for me to try harder and improve my times,” Kilheeney says. “Seeing improvements in my times has always motivated me to keep going and improve even more.”
There are no “right answers,” but freshman Jennifer Blandino delivered perhaps the most memorable one—joy.
“Running is my happy place. I’ve been told that I look way too happy when I run,” Blandino says. “I can start a run in a terrible mood, upset over a million things, and by the time I’m finished, I’m able to remember how blessed I am to be able to run. That really puts my worries in perspective.”