Bears Look to Step on the Gas at A-Sun Cross Country Championship Meet
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – To listen to Mercer University head cross country coach Ryan Bailey talk about his team, you may not be able to determine whether he is speaking about his runners or a NASCAR race. But for Bailey, in his ninth season at the Bears' helm, there are similarities.
The MU harriers will get a chance to put their mentor's strategies to the test this Saturday as the Bears compete in the Atlantic Sun Conference championships, being hosted by USC-Upstate at its Milliken Research Park. The women's race steps off at 9 a.m., followed by the men at 10 a.m.
Mercer's team has had a two-week hiatus since it last ran at the USC-Upstate Invitational – contested on the very same course used for the championships – and had both of its teams establish school records for average time. In addition to the obvious lure of competing for A-Sun honors, Bailey has tossed down an additional challenge to his teams for the season and the weekend.
"The whole idea for us is to peak for conference," Bailey said. "That's where the rubber meets the road for our teams. One of the incentives I gave them was that if (the entire team) kept their grades up and did well enough in conference, I would take the team to regionals and they would get a chance to run (the longer races, 6K for women and 10K for men). Normally, what I've done in the past is just take the top couple runners.
"But this year we've got such a strong team, I feel I can take a full team to regionals and let them compete there."
The other by-product of a chance to go to the NCAA regionals is the opportunity to be nominated for national academic post-season honors, which is high on Bailey's list for his squads. Both teams are very solid academically (last year's women's team earned Mercer's "President's Award" for having the highest team grade point average with a composite 3.79!), as well as on the course. "The academic award is one of our goals – and one of my goals - for the team," Bailey said.
But for all that to happen, Bailey's Bears need to navigate Saturday's A-Sun championship course and turn some of the pre-season prognostications for the team on its ear (or other anatomical parts). Mercer's men's team was slotted seventh in the pre-season coaches' poll (the same place they finished in 2009), while the women's squad was tabbed eighth (one notch up from its ninth-place 2009 tally). Bailey, while not given to predictions, will concede that he believes his teams will do better than those estimates.
And Bailey has planned out each individual's lead-up to Saturday with the precision of a crew chief calculating fuel on board to cross the line in optimum fashion. He has taught his youthful roster some lessons from early-season race mistakes and, if all goes to plan, they'll incorporate experience and planning for a successful Saturday.
"We've got them in great shape. For the past two weeks we've kept the intensity up, but reduced the volume. They're running around half the volume they were before, which allows them to be rested and go in there feeling really good and hopefully see anywhere from 1.5 to 4 percent improvement on their times.
"If you watch our races, halfway into the race – three-quarters of the way into the race - we're not doing anything but passing people. We leave a little bit left in the tank to finish hard. An ideal race is pushing yourself exactly so that when you cross the finish line you're done; you're baked; you're finished; you're cooked. When you've got 200 meters left to go, that tunnel vision ought to start coming in. What happens when you run a really super hard race is that you 'gray out' at the end of it and all you can think about is getting across the line before you pass out.
"And that's the kind of race you only want to have about once a year and that's what I'm trying to prep them for at conference."
A look at the gap between Bailey's top four or five runners on each team makes you realize that the Bears are indeed popping on all cylinders. In four races prior to the A-Sun meet, the men's team has had four different individuals finish as the Bears' top runner, as well as crossing the line in close proximity (usually less than a minute of each other). The women have been led by sophomore Kacie Nemann (a second team All-A-Sun finisher in 2009) the past three races, but freshman Linda Batna is within 11 seconds of the Bears returning second team All-A-Sun finisher from 2009. Batna, a native of Latvia, has never competed in cross country prior to coming to the USA to run with the Bears.
The third and fourth finishers for MU's women's team have varied, but both spots have usually been occupied by the freshman tandem of Sammy Woller and Lena Hamvas. Hamvas was Mercer's top finisher to open the year at Georgia and Woller – like Batna – has had more experience on the flat track and is still maturing and growing in her collegiate cross country skills.
"In track you can eye-ball your competitors," Bailey explained. "You've got clearly demarcated splits you can check whenever you choose to. But in cross country there's a 'learning curve'. You have to learn to negotiate hills and turns - rocks and roots – and things like that."
For the men, sophomore Jacob Law was an all-conference second team placer last year, but is just one of the quartet to lead the Bears in races in 2010. Law's classmates Chris Svidesskis and Andrew Weems, along with freshman Sony Prosper, have each been the "Papa Bear" for the men's team at one time or another this season. Prosper ran a 26:08 minute time on the Upstate course to pace the team back on October 16, the fastest time recorded by a frosh runner for an 8K course in MU history.
Bailey thinks the championship course sets up well for his runners. For the relatively flat course, Bailey has backed off the hill work for his teams and stressed race strategy instead. Additionally, he believes the recent rains will take care of the dusty conditions they experienced two weeks ago, which will make breathing easier and make for the possibility of some even better times for the Bears.
"Having such a young team is great, because they are only going to get better," Bailey said. "My job as a coach is to get each runner in shape to run the fastest time they can run, to get them race savvy; to get them to where they can run those even splits and run negative in the last mile; to run the fastest time they are physically able of running and just let the placement take care of itself.
"I'm satisfied with this team already. They've broken records three times already. If we continue to show significant improvement like that, as a coach, I have to be happy.
"We're going to run the fastest race we can possibly run and let the placement shake out where it shakes out."
For the Bears, all that's left now is the wave of the 'green flag' to start the races and put their efforts to the test on Saturday.