Cross country is not just a collection of athletes running through a course to get the best individual times possible.
It entails specific preparation and strategy prior to each race, with the team and coaches trying to figure out the best way to attack the course.
Teamwork is a vital element of racing. Even though it may be difficult to communicate directly during a race, it is imperative that coaches and runners are on the same page regarding what they hope to accomplish during a race.
“I think teamwork and strategy go hand in hand,” said Rutgers women’s assistant coach Jan Merrill-Morin. “At the beginning of the season, we are using it more as to, ‘Go out as an individual, and then you’ll become a team.’”
Having runners finish toward the front of the pack in relatively close positions is crucial to scoring in a race.
Scoring is determined by totaling the points, or the finishing place, of the first five runners from each team. Therefore, the team with the lowest number of points wins the race.
“We’d like to get the three, four and five runners closer to the one and two,” Merrill-Morin said of the team’s scoring.
From a coaching perspective, she is using the early-season meets as a chance to gather information on her team and to see where they stand collectively as a unit.
“I can see and witness their strengths and see what we need to do for the more important races, like when we get to the Big Ten championships and the regionals, and how we want them to activate plans in the race,” she said. “Right now, I’m watching a lot of the freshmen and seeing how they are doing with their own ideas in the race. Then I’ll come forward and bring my ideas to them in the next couple of races.”
The freshmen dynamic is interesting on many levels. The men are getting used to running longer distances than in high school, where they ran 5,000 meters. Now, they are running 8,000 meters on the college level.
While it may require some time to make the transition from high school to college competition, men’s junior Dan Lee recalled a recent practice in which the freshmen seemed to be getting more acclimated with the longer distances.
“We’ve been looking really good in practice, especially lately,” he said. “We had a workout and the freshmen were right there with me and Jaimin [Vekaria], so that’s two upperclassmen leading them. I’m very encouraged and have a lot of hope for us.”
Communication is an important facet for developing a strategy for a race. While it is difficult to communicate directly during a race, Lee’s teammate, junior Jaimin Vekaria, said strategy talk occurs before a race on most occasions.
“Usually, we go over a little bit of strategy before the race,” Vekaria said. “At Holmdel, I told the team, ‘We’re looking for a 5:40 to 5:30 average [per mile],’ so I communicated that,” he said.
Vekaria said the men’s team, like the women’s team, is using the early point of the season to gauge where the entire team is and to see how to get the first five runners closer together to improve scoring.
“We try to keep the strategy [of keeping] as many guys together toward the end of the race as we can,” he said. “And hopefully [everyone] moves up and makes a push, so we can get a closer one-through-five split.”
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