Syracuse University Magazine

Distance Runners Revive a Winning Tradition

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At Morgan Hill State Forest in the hills south of Syracuse, the men's and women's cross country teams regularly pound their way up a grueling six-mile stretch of dirt road. "We love it," says Coach Chris Fox, now in his fifth year at the helm of the Orange cross country and track and field programs. "Running the hills at Morgan makes you really strong, and we take pride in our strength." 

And it's paying off. Under the guidance of Fox and assistant coach Brien Bell, the Orange cross country teams have emerged among the leaders in the Northeast and become national contenders. Fox attributes the program's rise to relentless recruiting and a consistent coaching philosophy that emphasizes smart, efficient mileage and strength-based training. As a result, he's seen steady progress in individual performances and in the program's competitive culture. "There's a certain momentum," he says. "The goals of the kids are so much higher than they were even two years ago. What has become an acceptable time to them is so much faster, and they expect much more out of each other."

 Last fall, for the first time in program history, both teams won the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships, broke into top 10 rankings, and placed in the top 20 at the NCAA championships (men, 14th; women, 18th). It was the highest finish ever for the women, and the men's best finish at the nationals-and first time competing as a team-since 1974. The men's team also captured the Big East crown for the first time and won the prestigious Wisconsin Adidas Invitational. Among the top individual performances, Tito Medrano '12 became the first Orange cross country runner to attain All-America honors in 27 years, and Katie Hursey '11 won the Northeast Regional meet and was selected as the region's Woman Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Both teams also earned Academic All-America accolades, adding SU to a list of only 17 schools to achieve that honor. "It was a big deal for us to win the Big East and to get to the nationals as a team," says Fox, who was named the Northeast's Coach of the Year. "The only goal starting the season was to get to the nationals. Then we caught some momentum as the season went on, and we had higher expectations."

On the recruiting front, Fox believes the program is now selling itself, drawing top runners from New York and across the country. He regards the sophomore group, which includes Medrano, as one of the best in the country and says they are all potential All-Americans. The incoming class-which he calls the best yet-features several of the state's top distance runners, as well as state champions from Maryland, New Jersey, and Michigan. "This is as good as any place in the country for our sport. We love what we have here," Fox says, noting the combination of natural beauty and physical challenge offered by their training courses. "Now that we've become better, our map is bigger."

 If there's any further need for motivation, the runners can merely look to the past: In the late 1940s and the '50s, the men's teams were regularly in the national title hunt, and the 1951 men's team won the national championship. "That's what we think about," Fox says. "It's hard to win a national championship and will take a ton of luck, but we'll certainly put ourselves in contention over the next few years." —Jay Cox