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Crossing off their accomplishments

Brad Garick

If you want to reach Dylan Bernard in the evening by phone, don't bother calling before 7 p.m. He would probably still be in the midst of one of his nightly 90-minute runs that cover no fewer than 12 miles.

That is typical training for not only Bernard, a sophomore, but most of his teammates on the Mount St. Mary's men's cross country team as well. After a Northeast Conference championship fifth place individual finish for Bernard - one behind senior teammate Kyle Ryan - and a second place showing for the team, the Mount men's cross country squad will not be content with anything less than last year's admittedly surprising finish.

Dylan Bernard

Kyle Ryan

"Last year was great ... [but] there's no reason we couldn't shoot for first," Ryan said.

That will not be easy, however, as the team lost three of its top five runners to graduation. Matt Logie, who joined Bernard and Ryan as 2008 All Conference selections (top 14 at the NEC meet), was the top senior. Logie was a four-time All-NEC selection and captured Rookie of the Year honors in 2005. Morgan Sowell and Justin Brackett rounded out the team's lineup last season.

"The seniors [who graduated] did leave their mark," Ryan said by phone.

Senior captain Will Mitchell and a highly-anticipated group of freshmen figure to fill in the gaps left by the class of 2009.

"We sort of shorted ourselves I think," said Mitchell by telephone of last year's low expectations entering conferences. It was not until the ride home from the NEC meet at Monmouth University that the team reflected on the small changes it could have made that day that might have made them champions. Selected in a 2008 preseason coaches' poll to finish fourth, the men realize they were not the only ones who were a little surprised by their results.

"We kind of scared the conference," Bernard said by phone. Because of those results, the team will not have the element of surprise on its side this year it was recently selected to finish third in NECs and that is fine with them.

Ryan, however, has high aspirations not only for his teammates, but also himself.

The goals for his final season are simple: win team-wise and individually. Not only does Ryan want to be the first across the finish line in late October, but he hopes to earn the conference's Most Outstanding Performer award.

When prodded, Bernard expresses the same desire of winning the individual conference title, but neither runner would be disheartened if they finished second behind their own teammate.

"I'd be incredibly happy for him," Bernard said of what a victory by Ryan would mean. The senior, although running out of time, would be just as happy if Bernard stole the title.

"I'd rather have him beat me than someone else on a different team," Ryan said.

A one-two finish is not out of the question. Bernard's finish last fall made the Mount the first team with two runners across the line in last year's meet.

Ryan's time of 26 minutes and 49.7 seconds was 29.6 seconds behind first place and 12 seconds ahead of Bernard.

Quinnipiac sophomore Richard Klauber won the individual title in 2008 and is also the reigning NEC MOP. Third place finisher Ry Sanderson of Central Connecticut State will also be back for his senior season meaning that Logie and runner-up John Kenworthy of Sacred Heart are the only two 2008 All-NEC runners who will not return, placing even more pressure on Ryan and Bernard if they wish to contend for the title.

Unity for Victory

"The minute we saw them put the Mount St. Mary's nameplate on the second place trophy we were just ecstatic," Bernard said of the program's best finish in 10 years. "We all felt so good after we saw that."

But Mitchell points out that it would not be the same to simply repeat least year's performance, and fortunately the team holds what the runners believe is the key to reaching a new level this season: unity.

As evidenced by Bernard and Ryan's willingness to accept defeat from a teammate, the members of the Mount cross country team run for each other an oddity considering the individual nature of the sport.

Mitchell was already planning a trip to Hershey Park for the team more than a week before it was due to return to campus. The runners returned to Emmitsburg on Aug. 22 to begin training together. Among the other things the team does together are trips to the movies and pasta nights on the eve of meets, which are not just limited to the men, as the women's team usually joins them.

Ryan says that the small size of the Mount's squad compared to other teams in the conference likely aids in their relationships.

In the day or two leading up to a meet the athletes often isolate themselves to get mentally prepared to race. Once at the course, though, the men can be found in prayer and chant to prepare for the race. A Hail Mary coupled with an off-the-cuff prayer intended for that day's meet is usually followed by a more raucous "Mount what? Mount U!" chant that is familiar to most of the school's athletic teams.

Mitchell, Ryan and Bernard all identified the unit's closeness as the element that sets it apart from others. Support from others is not always a given in a sport that offers such rigorous mental tests.

The team has daily practice at 3:30 p.m. along with an additional morning practice three days out of the week. It also lifts and does core exercises three days per week in the fall according to Larry O'Hara, who has been at the Mount since 2004, serving as head cross country coach since 2006.

Early in the year the team works on its strength and form with 50-minute hill circuits before transitioning into more distance runs as the season progresses.

The flatter terrain of the Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday runs are considered easier and enable the team to run as a unit. On Monday and Wednesday, however, the squad takes on a more challenging terrain that naturally breaks the runners into groups based on individual capabilities.

In these situations O'Hara expects the "higher mileage" Bernard and Ryan to lead the way with the potential for incoming freshman Patrick Hayes to keep pace by the end of the season. What O'Hara describes as his "mid-range group" figures to include Mitchell along with sophomores Andy Stakem and Johnny McAuliffe. Freshmen Chris Swisko and Sean Caskey have a chance to break into that group as well, according to O'Hara.

The wide-range of runs provide preparation for every conceivable course, which should serve the team well when it travels to Quinnipiac University's course for the first time, where the 2009 NEC championship will take place.

Conferences in Connecticut

The Mount will get its first look at the course of the defending champion Bobcats at the pre-NEC meet Sept. 19 and return to Hamden, Conn., on Halloween in hopes of winning the men's first title since 1998. Last year the Mount totaled 76 points 24 short of matching Quinnipiac. Having two runners outside the top 20 kept the Mount from matching the Bobcats' pace that included four All-NEC runners.

O'Hara has a strong vision for what the team must do to win this season.

"It will be very difficult, but in order for that to happen, we would need Kyle and Dylan to equal or improve their fourth and fifth place finish from last year and have our next three runners finish in the top 20 - 23 places," O'Hara wrote via e-mail. "Last year we capitalized on a few teams and individuals who possibly should have finished higher."

This year the Mount must be sure it is not one of the teams that opens the door for an underdog to unexpectedly climb the standings like it did in 2008.

"The key to cross country running is to have your entire top five have a good day on the same day, which is not easy, but we do our best to be prepared to do so," O'Hara wrote.

In most cases, that can be as simple as avoiding something that is not in the runners' control namely injuries, which slowed Logie in parts of last season.

One thing the team can do to ensure the best results is smooth the transition of losing three of its top five runners by preparing the freshmen as well as possible.

Mitchell says that keeping the new runners focused is always the hardest part. The off-the-course transition to a college schedule is something the captain and the rest of the team's leaders will focus on with their youngest teammates. Additional captains figure to be selected along with Mitchell before the season begins, but he says that everyone on the team has their own leadership qualities.

"We lost a lot of good talent," Ryan emphasized of the departed seniors. "We're going to demand a lot of [the freshmen] they're going to find out what college cross country racing is all about real quickly."

That will also mean adjusting from five-kilometer high school courses to eight-kilometer college meets.

Mitchell, who sounds like he could just as easily be training for a triathlon, has been putting in time on a bike as well as in the pool to break the monotony of the typical distance running for his summer training. Bernard says he is in the best shape of his life. And there is nothing unclear about Ryan's desire to capture a trio of accomplishments.

After last year's conference meet, some of the runners let loose with a tasteful champagne-fueled celebration.

"That was totally like a random thing," Mitchell said with a laugh.

And despite proclamations that the runners would be thrilled with another second place finish, there is something about their preparation indicating that nothing short of a championship would be worthy of popping bottles this season.

"Just being able to place in the top three would be good," Mitchell said. "Top one or two would be really satisfying. I don't know if it would be champagne-worthy."

But it certainly would not be random.

"If you know that you've accomplished something and you know that you've achieved everything you've been working for that's worth celebrating in itself," Mitchell said. "I have a good feeling about it."

Brad Gerick is the former Editor of the Mountain Echo, as well as the Echo's Sports Editor. Over the next year he'll be showcasing all Mount St. Marys sports teams and their activities. If you looking for great sports entertainment, turn off the TV and head over to the Mount!

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