*Story by Director of Public Relations Randy Sarvis
Five members of the Fightin' Quakers men's cross country team are betting that working, training and living together this summer is a winning combination for the upcoming season.
2018 was a pivotal year for the Wilmington College squad. They showed significant improvement in the Ohio Athletic Conference, #JennaStrong Invitational and other big meets as the student-athletes displayed a renewed commitment to excelling at their sport.
This spring, as head coach Ron Combs eyed what he expects will be a talented incoming freshman class, he contemplated ways in which his team could continue its rise.
"I told the guys that, if they stayed here and trained together this summer, it could help take us to another level," Combs said, adding he felt he could help some find campus jobs on the summer grounds crew, which would make them eligible for campus housing at a nominal cost. Obviously, there weren't 20 openings and many team members had jobs, internships and other plans already lined up in their hometowns.
Each can be found daily mowing lawns, laying mulch and engaged in other tasks preparing the campus for the new school year. Evenings, they can be easily spotted running together throughout the city and countryside in preparation for cross country season, often traversing the roads with incoming freshman runner and Wilmington resident Simon Heys,
"We're working to make the team better and represent Wilmington well," Cyrus said. The exercise science major from Newbury who designed their summer weightlifting regimen opted out of a good-paying job in Cleveland to be a part of this band of brothers.
"Most days, we meet after work and run," he said, noting he's been putting in about 70 miles a week.
Phelps, the lone senior, had a summer apartment and job lined up at the Cincinnati Zoo before deciding to stay in Wilmington. Training with teammates instead of solo this summer has proven especially beneficial.
"I thought I'd be on edge and overwork myself for my senior year — I know I can't train now like it's the end of the season. This year has been a huge change for me," he said, adding that "change" has been a positive one. Phelps, a business administration and economics major from Cincinnati who was WC's highest finisher at the Great Lakes Regionals in 2018, cut 1:36 off his best sophomore year 8K time last year. He looks to drop another minute, which would put him in the mid-25-minute range — and give him a good shot at All-Ohio Athletic Conference and knocking on the door of All-Region status.
"I'm on pace for 90 miles this week and, before the summer is over, I'd like to join the '100-Mile Club' and be one of the first guys here to do that," he added.
Clemens, a psychology and mathematics major from Fairmont, West Virginia, was the first to successfully apply for the campus job.
"I was just going to stay home and be a bum all summer," he joked, adding that training at WC has been much more serious than if he simply ran with high school friends, a scenario in which, "It's hard to get motivated." Clemens admitted he lacked a desired "foundation" last summer, something he relishes in 2019.
"The positives include training with people in a place I've trained before — here, we're working at the same job and running together," he said. "I'm running with them this summer because these guys are counting on me playing my role on the team."
Band of brothers.
Brandon, an exercise science major from South Charleston, admits he's not an upper echelon runner — yet, but he's been impressed with how the team has embraced him since day one.
"I was nervous coming into a college team last year," he said, noting his anxiety quickly dissipated. He recalled a track meet this spring that sums up the positive experience he's having. "I sucked at steeple chase in track and they cheered me on like I won the OAC!"
Band of brothers.
The quintet's daily routine also includes eating meals together.
"Josh is a pretty good cook!" said Honcomp, a sport management major from Morrow. Indeed, Cyrus was planning to prepare spaghetti and meatballs that evening, which wasn't a Tuesday because that day is reserved for "Taco Bell Tuesdays."
"Out of fast food places, we've found Taco Bell is the healthiest — if you replace the beef with black beans," Phelps said. "'Three burritos — three bucks.' That's our motto!"
Cyrus said they try to eat healthy and be "money savvy" by taking advantage of such specials or preparing group meals themselves. Their first trip to Aldi's for groceries remains in their collective memory.
Cyrus recalled each of the five placed items in "their section" of a single cart.
"Ryan bought Ho-Hos," Brandon said in referring to the frosted, cream-filled, chocolate snack cakes by Hostess — and representative of sugary temptations athletes try to avoid. Clemens added that Honkomp actually hid them in the cart under other food items so no one would notice until going through the checkout line.
"We ended up making a deal he can buy Ho-Hos once a month," Clemens added. "If he breaks 26 (minutes) this season, I will buy him a big box of Ho-Hos!"
Cyrus added, "Our summer's gone by pretty quickly. We tend to have a good time around each other."
Band of brothers.
They have ambitious goals for 2019, both individually and for the team. The guys wish to improve upon last year's seventh place finish in the OAC Championships by placing in the top four this year and top 15 in the regional meet. They especially want am impressive showing at their home meet, the seventh annual #JennaStrong Fall Classic. In 2018, they placed an impressive ninth in a field of 42 teams from NCAA D-I, II and III. WC lost to only two D-3 teams and defeated ones from the upper divisions.
"Whoever can grind out a tough race," Clemens said, emphasizing that they run in all conditions: heat, cold, rain, mud and wind. "Cross country is not about time; it's about racing and how high you can finish." Phelps added, "It's about how many people you can put behind you when you cross the finish line."
The guys look forward to mid-August when OAC-Freshman-of-the-Year Evan Whittaker — WC's top runner in most 2018 races — and the rest of the team return to campus, along with the new first year runners.
"We have enough depth that it's going to be very competitive for the top seven," Clemens said.
Combs described his five runners on campus as the "focal point" of the team this summer.
"I think a lot of the tone for the season is being set by these guys here," he said. "Also, this summer's been fun for me with those guys here. They come over to the house and hang out with my sons."
Combs said he likes where his program is right now — and where it appears to be heading.
"These guys — really our whole group — are so much fun to coach. They're so committed. I love the direction we're going," Combs added. "Having that group environment here this summer, I'm anxious to see how it pays off."
Combs mentioned that his other runners are not as far away this summer as geography might indicate. The team uses a running app in which they log their training details and can see who's putting in the summer miles — and who is not.
Cyrus said, "Everyone's looking out for everyone. They're putting in as much work as I am. It's a lot more fun because we're not dragging people to practice — they want to put in the work to make the team better."
"I love getting kids that are willing to challenge themselves and get better each week," Combs added. "I think the pieces are coming into place. They're interested in turning things around and getting people excited about where we're going!"
Band of brothers.