Cross Country: The Team Sport

Nov. 6, 2009

Two weeks ago we called cross country an individual sport, painting a picture of the mental and physical trials an athlete faces from start to finish of a race. However after seeing the Boilermakers and entire conference compete at the Big Ten Championships last weekend, it can be seen that there's more to these races than immediately meets the eye. Welcome to cross country: the team sport.

In a team-scored NCAA cross country race, schools may race seven individuals, placing each runner across the line and scoring the top-five finishers. The places of those five runners are then added up to total the team score with the lowest mark earning the team championship for the event. For example if a team secured the first five runners to complete the course, the first through fifth finishers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) would total 15 team points, also known as a perfect team score.

This scoring method is what makes cross country a team sport as the top runner on the team becomes just as important as everyone else competing. A first-place finish is all for naught if their teammates are unable to follow suit and push the team score into higher totals. Even the No. 6 runner can come into play as in the case of a tie in team scores, the side with the highest non-scoring runner is given the nod in placing.

"Team scoring is our focus as coaches and the overall focus of the sport," said Purdue assistant coach Conor Holt. "The NCAA has based overall success in cross country on team scoring and team success. It's one thing to have one great individual, but completely another to have five or six good runners and make up a great team that can succeed at a high level."

There were examples of teams topping individuals on both the men's and women's sides at last weekend's Big Ten Championships. On the men's side, Ohio State was an example of a great team effort as the Buckeyes had just one top-10 finisher, but clustered No. 15, 19 and 20, and saw a 35th-place effort from their No. 5 guy en route to second-place overall. Ohio State edged out third-place Minnesota, despite the Gophers fielding the individual champion, and two top-10 runners. Penn State showed team excellence on the women's side, using their No. 5 runner to get past Illinois, despite the Fighting Illini notching four of the top-15 finishers. Another example from the women's race was Iowa topping Indiana in the team rankings without a single finisher in the top-25, while the Hoosiers had two in the top-10.



Teams teach and coach a variety of training methods and strategies to encourage solid team scores. First and foremost it's important that teams train together, pushing each other throughout whatever variety of workouts assigned. This encourages athletes to develop a team mentality and improve together, rather than individually. Distance runners typically develop over longer periods of time than other athletes, and so training in this group or team fashion allows coaches to improve several runners at the same time and build an overall better team. Another technique is encouraging athletes to run close to each other during workouts. Runners very rarely find themselves in open space during a race, making training your body to become accustomed to contact and close quarters an advantage.

Purdue's application of these techniques and strategies resulted in their top women's team score in the last four years as the Boilermakers amassed 204 points; more than 40 points lower than in 2008. Freshman Camille Buscomb turned in the top individual Big Ten showing since 2005, taking 17th overall and running the second-fastest time at the conference meet since it bumped up to 6K in 2003. However possibly more importantly, senior Sarah Klaczynski had the top No. 5 runner placing since 2005, as her personal-record 6K was good for 58th. The Boilermakers paired up their No. 3 and 4 runners, as sophomores Katie Conrad and Stephanie Bonk finished just two seconds apart, while Klaczynski and freshman Kelly McCurdy were also separated by two seconds in fifth and sixth.

"We have a pair of young teams at Purdue, who are both learning quickly and are very eager to succeed," said Boilermaker assistant coach Lisa Senakiewich. "They've both embraced the team concept and it should be exciting to watch them develop, improve and hopefully succeed over the next few years.

"Running within a team concept makes a huge difference for me," said Purdue senior and Big Ten Sportsmanship award winner Kristin Phillips. "The team gives you that extra push in the last mile to finish hard, not just for yourself, but for your teammates and your school. You're not by yourself on the course, as you can pull your teammates along when they need help, and feed off their energy when you're down."

The Boilermakers continue their season a week from Saturday, Nov. 14, at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Championships, hosted by Indiana University. Familiar with their archrivals' home course, the Boilermakers hope to advance to their first NCAA Championship meet since 2005. Check this week for a preview of the event, and return post-race for full results and a recap.


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