After low numbers and race disqualifications plagued the beginning of the season, SLC Men’s Cross Country is finally hitting their stride, with many runners placing high and running record times in the weeks leading up to regional championships.
With two runners from the 2017-2018 season not returning, the Gryphons opened their season at the Adelphi Invitational with only four runners. Per NCAA rules, teams must have five runners finish the race in order to qualify for scoring and placement. If the team does not meet that minimum, they are disqualified and their scores are thrown out. If teams are unable to qualify for enough races, they are ineligible to compete in regionals, effectively ending the Gryphon’s season and eliminating their shot at making state championships or other postseason meets.
Because the first two meets of the season—the Adelphi Invitational and Purchase College Invitational—were held before students returned to campus, the team of four could not find new recruits in time and were disqualified from both races. While they were not yet in danger of being disqualified from the postseason, they still had to run knowing they could not score or place.
“It was very difficult [to run] because we weren’t scoring,” said Shin Narita, ‘21, who is currently running his second season with the team. “It was like, ‘What’s the point?’ I felt betrayed, like, what was I working for?”
Narita set a personal record at the Purchase Invitational, running an 8,000 meter race in a time of 30:22, finishing 37th out of 147 runners and beating the next Gryphon runner, Zack Roccaforte, ‘19, by thirty-one seconds. However, because the team only had four runners, the Gryphons were disqualified and the record time was thrown out.
Once students arrived on campus, the team recruited more runners, but not without facing new roadblocks.
One of the newest recruits to the team is Mario Jerez, ‘22. Jerez initially did not intend to run this year, instead planning on swimming with the Men’s Swim Team in winter.
“Only once I got here… [I asked] if I could do both cross country and swimming, and they said yes,” said Jerez. “So I ended up joining cross country late.”
With the addition of Jerez, the Gryphons were able to achieve the five-runner minimum to qualify in races. However, Jerez’s transition to the cross country team was was almost jeopardized by injury.
“I’ve had chronic shin splints since I’ve been here, just because it’s so much mileage I’m not used to,” explained Jerez.
Jerez ran his first race September 16th at the Queensborough Invitational, finishing fifth of the Gryphon runners. For Jerez, however, the race was less about placing and more making sure he could finish.
“The first race I ran I wasn’t prepared [to finish quickly] but Deanna [Culbreath, Head Coach], told me it’s not a race for me, it’s just about getting across [so the team would qualify].”
Jerez explains that while coaches didn’t ask him to race with his injuries, he put pressure on himself to race so the team could place, even with his shin splints.
“Even if I wasn’t going to run my best, it was just to get to the finish line so we could score,” he explained.
With the additions of first years Lee Brown and Alex Reith, the team now boasts seven runners. However, up until midseason the team ran non-rostered runners in races to ensure they would be able to qualify. While the team is still on the smaller size, Jerez believes the compact roster is what has brought them so close in the few weeks since school began.
“It’s a close-knit team, we have dinners together,” Jerez explains. “We try to support the rest of the athletic community on campus. We have fun with each other.”
Although the first few weeks of the season were rocky, the Men’s Cross Country team now consistently finishes in the top half of their races, and have not had to disqualify for a race since the Purchase Invitational in September.
“I feel more motivated to work my best,” said Narita. “Now that [the team is] actually scoring and qualifying there’s a tangible measure for how we do, something that we didn’t have before we had a full team.”
Multiple runners, from Narita to Jerez later in the season, have set new personal records. At the most recent meet, the NJIT Highlander Challenge, Roccaforte posted a season-high time of of 28:35, finishing fifth among all Skyline runners. At that same meet, Narita ran the fourth-fastest time in school history, completing the 8k in 29:44.
After weeks of struggling to qualify for races, the Gryphons are taking full advantage of their seven-person roster, turning some of the most impressive numbers in recent memory. For those looking to see the team in action, catch their next race at the Skyline Conference Championships on Thursday, October 25th at the Hudson Valley Sportsdome.
Bella Rowland-Reid, ‘21