The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
The start of a new season is a mental cleansing of sorts for student-athletes and coaches as they can officially leave the past season miles behind and embark on the long road ahead.
That’s a lot of miles either way for cross country athletes, whose training leaves them plenty of time to contemplate what was and what might have been.
Letting go of last season might have been a little tougher for Georgia Tech’s men’s and women’s teams, as 2017 saw lot of positives.
Those positives serve as a building block as they prepare for 2018 — a process that began yesterday as they hit the road in their first workout.
“There really is something special about the first day of practice every year and every season,” said Alan Drosky, who is beginning his 26th year as head coach of Georgia Tech Men’s and Women’s Cross Country. “There’s always the excitement of a new season, high hopes and just a lot of energy. Everyone’s excited about getting back together and to get going.”
The teams got going running a “long, progression run,” in which the runners gradually pick up the pace up every mile and a half. The men went 7.5 miles, while the women went 5. In time, men’s practices will increase to 9 to 10 miles while women’s workouts will jump to 8.
“It kind of started at a moderate effort, it gets a little bit harder then, towards the end, it gets to be a bit challenging,” said Drosky. “That’s just to kind of get a little bit of a separation to see where people are. Through most of the run they’re able to stay in the groups that they’re in, working together then, at the very end of the run they kind of get tested a little bit. That’s where you can really see what shape each individual is in. Then you use that information to determine workouts moving forward and efforts for each workout moving forward.
“I’d say it was a good first day,” Drosky continued. “The first workout is kind of a conservative effort but it’s the same effort that we do every year. Comparing it to previous years I feel like both teams are ahead of where they were last year at this point, which is a good sign. We’re excited about that and looking forward to getting into the routine, day-to-day, week-to-week.”
Both the teams return deep squads but also are in very different positions.
The men bring back almost their entire top seven from last season, when they finished top five in four of their five events — winning the Jacksonville State Opener, earning runner-up at the UGA Invitational and running third at the Alabama Crimson Classic — before an eighth-place at ACCs then 12th at the NCAA South Regional.
But the major question is how they will replace the one student-athlete who is not. That’s Nahom Solomon, who became the first Georgia Tech student-athlete, man or woman, in 16 years and the first man in 23 to earn All-America status, Solomon will still be around the team as he attends grad school and trains for his one season of eligibility for the Indoor season, but will be missed in competition, as he led the Jackets in every race over the last two years.
Drosky draws an analogy to what the 2003-04 Georgia Tech Men’s Basketball team faced and how it responded to losing its star, Chris Bosh — it’s a fitting analogy, with Bosh going into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame on September 22.
“I’m sure that was a big hole to fill,” he said. “But that’s one of the great things about a team. When they pull together, work together, get that synergistic effect, they can make up for losing someone special like Nahom. So that’s what the men will aim to do. There are a lot of guys that are capable of it. One of the hallmarks of the team recently has been the depth. I think we can be an even better team than last year.”
The Yellow Jackets will count on the senior leadership of Avery Bartlett, Christian Bowles, and Matt Munns, who all parlayed their cross country seasons into success in both Indoor and outdoor track. Drosky also will be looking for fellow seniors Matt McBrien and Mitchell Sanders to be “significant players” and junior Andrew Kent. Drosky believes redshirt freshman Braeden Collins, and juniors Sam Costa and Andrew Matson also have a chance to be contributors and crack the top seven. Then there’s the rich class of incoming freshmen.
“The freshmen look good but the question is can they help us right away? Can they help us this fall?’” he said. “That’s a question that we’ll evaluate in the next couple of weeks.”
The women also are deep and return their top four runners from last year — seniors Mary Prouty, Amy Ruiz and Hailey Gollnick and last year’s freshman sensation Nicole Fegans.
“Those four are very experienced, very tough. They’ll most likely lead the team,” said Drosky. “Those four are outstanding. They made great progress from last fall, through the track season.”
There also should be plenty of competition for places 5-7 to push the top four. Among those Drosky is keeping an eye on sophomore Liz Galarza, who is back healthy from injury and who shone in track, sophomore Hana Herndon, who redshirted in cross country then came on in track, and rising juniors — and rising talents — Ellen Flood and Hannah Petit. Then there’s also their rich incoming class.
“It’s just like with the men — probably even more so with the women than the men — we have some pretty talented incoming freshmen that I’d say a couple of them have a good chance to run for the team this fall,” Drosky said. “It’s a little too early to make that decision but right now they look pretty good. So I think we’re going to line up the best women’s team that we’ve had in a long time. I know they’ve worked hard. I know they want to be a great team.”
The Tech women had a tremendous 2017, finishing top-five four times, winning the Jacksonville State Opener and the Alabama Crimson Classic and finishing runner-up at the UGA Invitational. But they were left with a bitter taste in their mouths following a tough day at ACCs, finishing 12th. Still, Drosky liked the squad’s resilience in coming back at the NCAA South Regional.
“The season didn’t end with the conference meet,” he said. “They rebounded two weeks later and got fifth at the South Region meet, which was outstanding. Then they carried that forward into the track season, with Amy Ruiz making the Final of the conference in the mile and Hailey Gollnick scoring in the conference meet in the steeplechase in the spring. Fegans, Ruiz and Gollnick all made it to the NCAA East Preliminary round last year in track. So they’ve rebounded. It’s just like any other sport with a race or a competition, you’ve got to have that short-term memory and just get back to work.”
The first meet is Sept. 8, the Bulldog Invitational in Athens. Drosky is excited for that and is eager to see how the team shapes up.
“They’ve put themselves in a higher level of competition,” he said. “We’ll start with the meet at Georgia. We like to go over to Athens. We like to compete against the Bulldogs. They’re a good program. It’s a good course, it’s a challenging course. It may be the toughest course we see all season so it’s good to get a good, hard race in early.
“Hopefully we’ll be a confident and prepared team come late October,” he added. “Both the men and women hope that they can be in a position to possibly get to the National meet from our NCAA South Region in November. So both teams look pretty solid.”