“Last year was an aberration,” Steve Keith, Cross Country and Track & Field Head Coach, assures me. The Commodores underachieved at the conference and national levels for the first time in nearly a decade. They placed 9th at the SEC Championship and 10th at the NCAA South Regional.
This year, they are preseason ranked 5th in the SEC and 8th in the South Region.
As I sat in his office and looked around, I saw photos, trophies, medals, and other paraphernalia that often festoons a Cross Country and Track & Field coach’s office. Most prominently, though, was the photo behind his desk, just above the chair. It was the 2011 Cross Country team standing atop the podium at the SEC Championships.
Keith has high expectations, and rightfully so. In the seven years prior, the Lady Commodores have earned six top fives, five top threes, and were conference champions in 2011. The program also has 2014 and 2015 NCAA South Regional Titles.
However, last year, things did not finish how they had hoped. Top runners, then Juniors, Caroline Pietrzyk and Sara Tsai, battled injury at the end of the season. The next two finishers, seniors Maddie Criscione and Megan Huebner, placed below expectations, not running their best times of the season.
It was a humbling experience, but one that has set the stage for a resurgence back to the elite programs in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. With a core of healthy, upperclassmen runners, a stable of up-and-coming freshmen and sophomores, and consistency in recruiting and the coaching staff, the Lady Commodores have their sights set on improving through the regular season and peaking in Championship Season.
This year’s squad will be lead by a healthy Pietrzyk and Tsai, who finished the Spring Track & Field Season well. Juniors Kendall Derry and Regan Bustamente had good seasons on the track, also. “We finished well on the track. It’s a good indication where they are at,” Keith says. Additionally, Kacie Breeding, Mallin Struck, Devon Grisbaum, Anna Morgan, Gillian Mortimer had fine showings at the SEC championships.
Struck placed 9th in the 10K. Bustamente and Derry 6th, and 10th respectively in the 1500m. Breeding 9th in the 3K Steeplechase. Tsai 11th, Pietrzyk 24h, Grisbaum 28th, Mortimer 40th, and Morgan 46th in the 5K.
Distance running isn’t all long distance. This team is made up of 800/1500 runners like Bustamente, but it also has someone like Struck who sets out on a 10K on the track, something she’ll never race in Cross Country. Is there a difference in training them? “No,” says Keith. “Sometimes the middle distance runners don’t think they can get that extra distance, but they can. I just don’t ask it of them until we need it [at championships].”
Assitant Coach Bekah Smeltzer has been a welcome addition to the coaching staff. This is her third season, and she has found her groove in recruiting and coaching. When new coaches come in, a transition can be difficult from the training, to expectations, and even relationships in recruiting. Smeltzer “has done a good job,” Keith says as he nods confidently. “I like what she’s doing.”
Racing isn’t the only time competition is necessary for a Cross Country team. Each practice needs to have an edge of competition, and Smeltzer has brought that and recruited that. There are five freshman on a team of 17, most are decorated high school athletes, breaking the five minute barrier in the 1600m. Ana Wallace, out of Tallahassee, placed sixth in the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship with a time of 17:26 in the 5K. Add that to the three sophomores on the roster, and the team is a good mix of experience and youthful talent.
However, it is not all competition. Each year, the Cross Country squad takes two-and-a-half days to go on a retreat. “It’s not about training. It’s team bounding,” says Keith. They get a few runs in, but it is more for the team to get to know each other before the rigors of school and regimented season comes upon them.
“Each night we play games. The second night, each class has to come up with a song or skit.” When asked if it’s good, Keith cracks a grin, “have you ever seen a distance runner dance? No rhythm.” But it’s a nice respite for the team as they refresh and set their eyes towards the schedule.
“We need to get back to Nationals.” It’s a pretty simple goal, and one the Commodores have become accustomed to. Yet, physiology doesn’t lie. There is no fast track to training, no moment when the coin drops, like in other sports when a baseball team’s bats catch fire or a basketball team suddenly can’t miss a three pointer. “We have to just get better. Every two week cycle.”
They start their schedule on August 31 at the Belmont Opener. Then a week later, they go to Auburn for the SEC Preview. A week after, Vanderbilt hosts the Commodore Classic at Percy Warner Park. They take a week off and then they will go to Wisconsin on September 28, a race Keith has scheduled as an important one. It is where NCAA’s is held this year, and he says, “these are like your midterms. Your grade isn’t determined by it, but it gives you a very good indication of your progress.”
The regular season ends on October 13 at Texas A&M. They’ll get a week off before SEC Championships on the 26th. NCAA South Regionals (held in Tallahassee) and NCAA Nationals are November 9th and 17th respectively.
The championship meets are 6K instead of the 5K races run throughout the regular season. When asked if the runners are nervous about the extra distance, Keith says, “no. They shouldn’t be. It’s a chance to run more and embrace the competition.” Their performance in that last kilometer is based on their training throughout the year and on “how competitive they are.”
This is Steve Keith’s 12th year at Vanderbilt. He previously coached at Alabama, University of Texas- El Paso, Georgia Tech, and Emory.