Nov. 11, 2011
In the realm of collegiate athletics, there is one thing all sports have in common -- a group of individuals that come together to form a team with the goal of competing on the highest level possible.
Each year brings another unique team that will have just one season to make the most of their time together and accomplish their goals. At the end of each season, seniors graduate and young athletes are brought in to fill their shoes and carry on the program's traditions. Those freshmen work hard to find their role on the team and grow in hopes of leaving their mark on the program by the time they graduate -- and the cycle continues.
As the postseason continues for the University of Michigan men's cross country team, the concept of a team couldn't be more important. The squad will compete in its final guaranteed meet of the season on Saturday (Nov. 12) at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional in Toledo, Ohio. But the reason the team has worked so hard all season is to give them the best shot of competing as a team one more time -- at the NCAA Championships.
The top two teams in each of the nine regions across the country qualify for the NCAA Championships, while another 13 teams are awarded an at-large bid, for a total of 31 teams. The goal for the eight guys who made the regional squad is to return the Wolverines to the national stage, a feat Michigan has not accomplished as a team since 2008. Fifth-year senior Craig Forys is the only current harrier to have experience at the national level, as he qualified individually in 2010 and as part of a team in 2007 and 2008.
Seven harriers will represent Michigan at the regional in the Wolverines first 10,000-meter race of the season -- fifth-year senior Craig Forys, senior Bobby Aprill, junior Zach Ornelas, junior/sophomore Brendon Blacklaws, sophomore Morsi Rayyan, sophomore Mark Beams and freshman Mason Ferlic.
The seniors on the team naturally tend to take on a leadership role and strive to pave the way for runners to follow. Craig Forys and Bobby Aprill have been the corner stone of the program throughout the last four years and are looking to finish strong in the final stretch of their cross country careers.
Here's what the two senior had to say about their careers at Michigan thus far and what it will take to qualify for nationals:
U-M Fifth-Year Senior Craig Forys - (Howell, N.J./Colts Neck)
On how he assimilated into the program so quickly ... "When I came in, I was the only freshman distance runner, so I was kind of adopted by the older runners. There was a big class of juniors with Sean McNamara, Brandon Fellows, Tony Nalli and a few others that took me in right away and I felt older than I was. I didn't feel like a freshman ever in my career and I learned quickly how to be a good athlete from those guys."
On how he can use his experiences to help other runners on the team ... "I think what I learned from the older group was all the mistakes that they made and also all the things that they did right that worked. I saw them go through their fifth year and figured out what I wanted to do for my fifth year, which was stay a little more focused and finish out my career on a very positive running note. Basically what I learned from them was how to be a smart athlete. Those are the things that I need to teach the younger guys -- just let them know that they can talk to me and judge whatever I do, good or bad, so they can learn from it. I think I foster closeness with everyone on the team. I've tried to make a point that it's going to be a pretty daunting task to run well at the regional and national level, but as long as they do intelligent things in the race, they'll be fine."
On what it would mean to make it to nationals as a team ... "I think one of my biggest regrets is my first years of college. With my teammates then, we were a great team and we made it to nationals as a squad and we kind of flopped at the NCAA Championships. We were 24th both years and if we don't get there this year and kind of beat that barrier, I'll be little regretful about what happened in those first two years. It would mean a whole lot, looking back on my career, if we could get there and improve on were I've been so far."
U-M Senior Bobby Aprill - (Dexter, Mich./Dexter)
On how his experience as a freshman was different four years ago ... "When I came in, I was one of a two-person class, so I didn't really have what these freshmen have, which is a big class to learn with. I was kind of tossed in with this older group and I had to swim or sink. I had some really good upperclassmen to learn from. I had the likes of Lex Williams, Sean McNamara and Brandon Fellows. Those were all guys who competed pretty well on the Big Ten and national level. It was a little different because it was a different system than what we're doing now and what freshmen are doing now."
On the team's goal to qualify for the NCAA Championships ... "Definitely the goal is to get to nationals. Getting there as an individual would be nice, but having a team there would be obviously the best. Obviously Craig is the only one who's been there as an individual and raced. I went there as a freshman, as an alternate, so I've been there on the day, I've seen the race unfold. I've trained to that point in the season, but I've never raced, so Craig is definitely as asset in that regard, but I think as long as we do what we've been doing all season we'll be fine. It's a different race, but the same mentality."
On running 10,000-meter for the first time this season ... "It's definitely a shock to the system the first time you do it as a freshman. You've never raced that far. It's another six minutes of running, another six minutes of focus -- hyper-focus because it's the end of the race. The first time you do it as a freshman, if you have a great day I'm sure it will feel the same as an 8K and if it's a bad day, those six minutes extra are going to feel like a lifetime. For me, I'm kind of excited to get back into it. I ran a few 10K's on the track in the spring and my mileage has been pretty high so I'm pretty excited to see how all that work will translate into a longer distance and how much better I think it's going to feel -- just how much stronger I'm going to feel over the last 2,000-meters. I'll try to reiterate to the younger guys that the work is done. You just have to remember that it's 2,000-meters longer so there's a bigger period of time where people can make mistakes. I know I was the butt of one of those mistakes last year. I was in it at regionals until 8,000-meters and then that's where I fell back and Craig made his move forward. There is definitely a lot more opportunity to make gains at the end of the race if you're focused."
Junior Zach Ornelas and junior/sophomore Brendon Blacklaws have each spent three years on the team. They have learned from veterans Craig Forys and Bobby Aprill and are now able to take on a leadership role as well and be role models for the underclassmen.
Here's what the pair had to say about their experience at Michigan and their roles in the future of the program:
U-M Junior/Sophomore Brendon Blacklaws - (Wellington, New Zealand/Wellington College)
On his transition to collegiate running in the U.S. ... "When I came we had a huge fifth-year class -- I think there were five of them. That really helped me acclimatize and get used to it, especially coming from New Zealand and not really knowing what the deal was. Also, coming in with a decent size class and having Bobby and Craig there to cue off was huge."
On passing on what he's learned to the younger runners ... "Having Craig and Bobby around has helped a lot. Even though were all the same age, it's just learning little things every day. We've got Alex and Mason on the regional team now and I think just being around us helps them. Typically freshmen learn from just being around the older guys. It's actually pretty funny taking them on trips and seeing what they do and remembering the mistakes you used to make (laughing)."
On his goals for the remainder of the season ... "Obviously we want to be doing better than we have been. First of all, the goal this weekend is going to be to make nationals. If we don't do that, then our season is really going to be a failure. For me, doing that is going to come by me racing the way I know I can, which I haven't really done yet this season through injury or what not. Racing to my potential is how I plan to help this team."
U-M Junior Zach Ornelas - (Cedar Park, Texas/Vista Ridge)
On what helped his transition to the collegiate level ... "When I came in a freshman I kind of had a difficult time adjusting. I didn't know how to get the sleep down and the diet. Then I dealt with my first real injury my freshman year that had me off my feet for three months, so that was a big thing to try and get used to. Guys like Craig I looked up to since he has obviously had his fair share of injuries throughout his career. He's always there to tell us to keep our head up. Having a team where the upperclassmen have all gone through injuries, which is pretty common in this sport has helped me get through that. The upperclassmen are good guys to look to because they've been there, done that."
On looking to Craig Forys for NCAA Championships experience ... "We all expect Craig to do well, he's a competitor on the line, but we've got a really solid front pack of guys right now and Bobby and Brendon should be up there too. Our top three, not just Craig, have all been really consistent so we don't worry about them. We know they're going to do their thing, so it's really on the four, five and six guys to kind of live up to their standards. They are paving the way for us to step it up as well."
On having two freshmen on the regional team ... "It's been really great to see. I've talked to both of the freshmen and they're both really enjoying their experience and they feel really grateful to get to experience this because freshmen generally don't get to do that, especially for a nationally ranked team like us. It's really reassuring for years like next year when we lose Bobby and Craig for cross country and we have these guys who are getting possibly a trip to nationals as freshmen, hopefully. We know they have experience going into next year to help fill in some shoes. I really like the tradition we have going right now where it's all about doing everything right. It's one of the things that coach Gibby pushes -- being great is on you. It's up to you -- you control your sleep patterns, follow all the rules and I really like to help exemplify that to the younger guys. You really just have to do everything right and if you do, good things will come."
Sophomores Morsi Rayyan and Mark Beams each have a full year of experience under their belts and had the benefit of joining the team at the same time that Coach Gibby took over the program. They relate easily to the two freshmen on the squad, having been in their shoes a year ago.
Here's what they had to say about their time at Michigan thus far and how they have acclimated to the team:
U-M Sophomore Morsi Rayyan - (Dewitt, Mich./St. Johns)
On when he realized he could be an important member of the program ... "At camp my freshman year I kind of realized what the dynamic was with the team. It's where I saw that to be good, you have to work hard and that's where it all started. I saw that we had guys moving out in a couple of years and they needed people to replace them so I had to step it up."
On who he looks to for guidance in the postseason ... "Definitely Craig is the one we look to for guidance in that area -- just more how to behave and stay calm psychologically and not overthink the race. Bobby being older helps that too. He's been through a lot too."
On how he can help relate to and teach the freshmen ... "The most important part of it would be the mental aspect. Being a freshman and coming into this level of competition and intensity can be really overwhelming, which I obviously found out last year. I think I can relate to that and we all just try to help them stay calm and not overthink the race."
U-M Sophomore Mark Beams - (Vicksburg, Mich./Vicksburg)
On his transition into the program ..."I think it was easier for us as freshmen last year. It was coach Gibby's first year and we hadn't had any prior college coaches, so the transition was essentially the same as would have been anywhere. I especially look up to Craig Forys -- he's a great runner and a great role model. He's someone I try to emulate as much as I can."
On the team's goals to qualify for the NCAA Championships ... "I know Craig has expressed to us before that it would be ideal for our entire team to go. He's only gone individually and going to nationals as a team would be the coolest thing."
On how he's helped the freshmen transition ... "I think as a sophomore you're easier to talk to. They can come to you with questions and sometimes we won't make fun of them as much if it's a silly question (laughing). They can relate to us a lot better. Since we've been here for a year, we can also relate to the upperclassmen, so we're kind of on middle ground."
Freshmen Mason Ferlic and Alex Standiford are the newest additions to the team and have earned the opportunity to make the trip to regionals with the varsity squad. They are among a small percentage of true freshmen who assimilated quickly and contribute in their first year. The regional will be their first time competing at the 10,000-meter distance.
Here's what the rookies had to say about their first year as part of the program:
U-M Freshman Mason Ferlic - (St. Paul, Minn./Mounds Park Academy)
On how the upperclassmen helped his transition to the collegiate level ... "I guess with any college athletics, when you join it's kind of a culture shock. You have to find where you fit in with the team and what your role is going to be. We spent the first few weeks trying to figure that out and once we kind of assimilated with the team, we felt accepted and figured out what we needed to do. I think the upperclassmen are really good role models with telling us what to do and how to act, what the culture was going to be like, what to expect and what was expected of us. I think Craig, Bobby and Zach are really good with that. They're to the point and if you have any questions, they're always there to support you. Traveling with them and being on the team with them has been a great experience. They made the transition a lot easier because they were so accepting. They told us that we're a team and we're all together."
On making the regional squad as a freshman ... "It's an honor. I wasn't quite expecting it at the beginning of the season, but the way it worked out has been great. I'm in phenomenal shape, I feel really good and I think I really stepped up and coach Gibby saw that an gave me an opportunity to run. I've had one okay race and I've had two rough races, but I think that's part of the process of finding myself and finding out how to race, especially with the 8K and the 10K and the higher level of competition. In high school, I was used to going out and leading the race from wire to wire. You knew what you had to do and everyone knew your name, but here I'm coming up from the bottom and have to work my way up. I think I have to embrace it and hopefully as things go on and the training cycle progresses, I'll jump to where I want to be and finish the season strong."
On the team's goal to qualify for nationals ... "I think it would be fantastic to make it to nationals. That's what we're going for. That would be the perfect way to cap off the season. I know Craig and Bobby really want it because it's there last cross season and they want to go out with a bang. They can make it as individuals and go to nationals, but I think for them it would be more special to go as a team. But we all have to contribute, it's not just Craig and Bobby who are going to take us to nationals, it's everyone, it's the top seven. We want to get back to that level where Michigan should be at. Hopefully with coach Gibby and his new type of culture and his new training program, that will be a common theme -- going to nationals every year."
U-M Freshman Alex Standiford
On making the regional squad as a freshman ... "It has certainly been an exciting experience. I'm really thankful to be traveling with the varsity guys and going to these meet. It feels great to be a part of something where we're improving so much and we're doing big things. In general, it's just exciting to run with Craig and Bobby -- even in high school those guys were my role models and I thought it would be really awesome to run and train with those guys. The sophomores right now have done a lot of coaching us as well because they've obviously had more of coach Gibby's style and they didn't have to change over from the old style. They kind of know a little more of what he expects and have helped us out too."
On proving himself as a freshman ... "It's definitely a challenge, but it's something that you have to work hard at every day and if you do that, you're going to reach your goals and my goal was to get on the travel squad. I feel like I've achieved that goal. You can't get a head of yourself. You just have focus on each and every day, each workout and make sure you're doing your best to achieve what you want to achieve."
On being a part of the future of the program ... "It's really awesome because even this year it's a big thing that we could take this team to nationals, but looking down the road with the training we've been doing, we're going to be a lot better even next year and the year after that. To think about what we could become and the changes we are starting to make here, we could be very successful down the road. It's pretty exciting to think about. Looking forward, I just want to show that I'm working hard every day in practice and even outside of practice, making the right decisions off the track. People are going to look up to you and see what you're doing, not just in training, but how you're handling everything else in your life. I think it's really important to make good decision socially and academically as well."
When the gun sounds at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional on Saturday, the slate will be wiped clear. It won't matter what eligibility each runner is or what the team as accomplished to that point. Each runner will leave everything they have out on the course with the goal of making it one step further -- AS A TEAM!