TGW: Catch, 22 (If You Can)

The Good Word
By Jon Cooper

The 22nd-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

It’s really fun to say. Women’s Cross Country Coach Alan Drosky certainly enjoys saying it.

“It’s awesome,” said Head Coach Alan Drosky, who was in his 10th season as Cross Country coach the last time the Jackets cracked the top 25, in 2002. “The women have done a great job. They’ve put themselves in a position where they can really do some really special things over the next few weeks. In our sport, lower numbers are more important, so hopefully, as we move forward we hope that we’ll be seeing some lower numbers before that.”

The Jackets have an opportunity to lower that number on Friday morning, at the 2018 ACC Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Their race starts at 10 a.m. (The men take the course in their ACC Championship at noon).

The team has run superbly all fall, not finishing lower than third — winning in Athens at the Bulldog Invitational, finishing second at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, in Jamaica Plain 13 days later, then finishing third at the Penn State Cross Country National Open Oct. 12 in University Park, Pa.

Talk about a fun run!

“It’s been great, especially seeing the progress. My sophomore year I remember our goal was 10th at ACCs. Maybe our top person got 45th, barely top 50,” said senior Amy Ruiz, who WAS that top person at 2016 ACCs, finishing 45th for the 14th-place Jackets. “Now we’re trying to get top three. Now we’re going to have, hopefully, five to seven girls in the top 50. Just seeing how far we’ve advanced has been great for myself and the other seniors. I definitely would say this year we have had the best team dynamic we have had yet.”

The closeness actually began before the team ever ran a race.

“We started this year doing a ‘Big Sister-Little Sister’ program,” said Ruiz. “We paired up upperclassmen with underclassmen to help ease freshmen into college and to help sophomores to expand their college career, then it gives those juniors and seniors a leadership position. I think it’s had a great effect on the group of girls.”

It’s translated to the races. Tech put seven runners in the top 10 in the Bulldog, four in the top 21 at Beantown and two in the top 10 and four in the top 40 at Penn State. Especially satisfying is that the Jackets have gotten contributions from their top five from different runners in each meet.

Senior Mary Prouty led the Jackets in the first two meets and was second in the third. Redshirt freshman Hana Herndon was third the first two meets then led Tech at Penn State. Ruiz has two fourths and a third. Sophomore Nicole Fegans has a pair of seconds and a fourth, and a trio of runners — redshirt freshman Liz Galarza, sophomore Ellen Flood and true freshman Mary Kathryn Knott — took turns finishing fifth. Nipping at their heels has been senior Hailey Gollnick, who Drosky says is finally healthy running her best heading into this weekend.

“It’s great to have that depth. Even our sixth, seventh, eighth have been outstanding,” said Drosky. “It’s great to know that if someone has an off-day the rest of the team can pick up the slack. There are a lot of teams in our region, they’ve got five really good women but if they have to drop back and count their sixth there’s often times a pretty significant drop-off. With us, we’d be very comfortable just because 5, 6, 7, 8 are all coming in one after another almost.”

In fact, there’s not much separation one through eight. At Georgia, Tech’s septet was separated by 48 seconds, with Gollnick 16 seconds behind them. In Boston, Tech’s top four came in 23 seconds apart, with the next four 33 seconds behind them, while at Penn State, GT’s top two were separated by three seconds, while Nos. 3 through 8 finished less than a minute after.

The grouping and tight competition has kept the group motivated.

“It helps with improving,” said Ruiz. “There’s no, as my high school coach called it, ‘Sandbagging.’ You can’t be, ‘Oh, I’m going to stay fourth no matter what I do’ because someone’s right on your heels. Everyone, is, in a way, not safe with their position on the team. It’s been changing week to week, even now. So having that depth we’re able to be stronger and I think it’s motivated us a lot more, especially in the workout groups. The workout groups are definitely a lot stronger and people are really competing and pushing each other.”

The Jackets found extra motivation from the polls, as they were considered something of a novelty, and their success kind of an outlier, especially after their success in the Bulldog Classic.

“Our rankings are very subjective. The information about all the teams when you’re doing the rankings is not necessarily that readily available so you use projections largely based off of how teams had finished the year before,” Drosky explained. “When we beat Georgia they didn’t run one of their women. So you’re trying to figure out, it’s early in the season, does that mean Georgia Tech’s good? Does it mean Georgia is not as good as projected? That’s just kind of the nature of the beginning of the season.

“But as every weekend goes and more people are competing it kind of shakes itself out to where we get to this point now,” he added. “The South region, which historically has not been one of the stronger regions. We have four nationally ranked teams in our region and a fifth in the University of Florida, which is as good as any team in the region. So, as you get more data and you can see who’s racing against who and who’s beating who, the dust kind of settles to where we get here going into the championship and the rankings are probably pretty solid now.”

Prouty admitted the team used some of the perceptions as fuel.

“There was an article published about how the rankings really haven’t changed that much, like we only moved up from fourth to third in the region,” recalled Prouty. “I thought that was CRAZY. UGA was only missing one girl. I felt like, ‘We did great and I don’t feel like that ranking reflects how we actually did.’ It got us fired up, like ‘We have to prove ourselves again.’”

Ruiz actually didn’t mind being out of the spotlight.

“I kind of liked the fact that we were kind of sneaking under the radar,” she said. “Until we have a very impressive second place, three places away from getting first at Beantown. So in a way, I was fine with it.”

Having run as well as they have, as consistently as they have, and having done so on the same course they’ll be running Friday, gives the team confidence.

“You absolutely hope it is and you think that it is,” said Drosky. “We went there the third weekend in September, after that kind of breakout performance, where we beat Georgia, and ran against and beat some nationally ranked teams there. The feeling went out there, ‘Georgia Tech is pretty good.’ For the women to have run well on that course I think is very positive. They felt like they had a great race. They know that course now. Going into it helps them prepare mentally because they know what they’re going to face at the conference meet.”

“We left Boston very happy and very accomplished, but we could have done better at Beantown. We could have gotten first so I feel like there’s still hunger to place better than we did,” said Ruiz. “So coming back to that course will definitely help because we were only three points away. So just instilling that in the girls, ‘If you can get three more people, that may be the deal-breaker between first and second or second and third place.’ I think that’s the mindset most of us are going into ACCs with.”

The Jackets are determined to use Friday as another opportunity to make a statement that goes well beyond this year.

“We think we’re building something that’s sustainable and not just, ‘Boy remember that year Georgia Tech had that great season?’” said Drosky. “When you look at Nicole (Fegans) and you look at Hana, who are sophomore and redshirt freshman. You look at Liz Galarza, who is a redshirt freshman as well, you look at Mary Kathryn Knott, who’s a freshman, Ellen Flood, she’s a redshirt sophomore, and some kids beyond that that are really developing well. We know we’re going to take a hit losing some of the seniors but we really feel like we are building the foundation that we’ll be able to keep this going.”

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