Cross-country is typically not thought of as a team sport but that is not so for the Slippery Rock University men’s cross country team, who put an emphasis on running as a complete team and unit.
“Everybody has the same responsibility, regardless of if they are the first runner or last runner.” head coach John Papa said.
Papa is now coaching The Rock at regionals for the 30th year in a row. Papa has emphasized teamwork in all of his years here, and this year’s team is no exception.
“Everybody has to do what we call ‘protecting your neighborhood.’ When you get to the midpoint of the race, you have to focus on beating the athletes in your vicinity. Everybody on the team has to trust that all of their teammates are doing the same thing.”
The Rock will look to first Team All-PSAC junior Jeremy Parsons for leadership in this event.
“Nobody else has run yet at regionals but Jeremy, they only know the competition,” Papa said on Parsons’ past experience with high-level competition.
Papa recalled the outstanding season Parsons had last year and looks forward on what it means for the star from Titusville.
“Jeremy qualified for nationals last year as an individual. Hopefully, he will repeat that. At the conference meet he wasn’t feeling well and was sick, now he’s feeling great and had a great workout. He is as good as he has ever been. I am confident he is going to do very well. I’m excited about that”
Besides Parsons, the Green and White are led by a quartet of freshmen.
John Marenkovic has been the standout, being The Rock’s second-place runner all year, highlighted by his 35th place finish at the PSAC Championships two weeks ago.
Jared Nelson, Keegan Beard and Daniel Janyska round out The Rock’s top scorers this year, and all have blown away expectations as freshmen.
Papa was very pleased with his team’s workouts top-to-bottom leading up to the last race of the year.
“Everybody has looked really good at our workouts,” Papa said. “Everyone is excited about the last race of the season.”
Slippery Rock’s lone senior, Stephen Shepherd, will miss what would have been his last ever race due to a late-season ankle injury.
Shepherd hopes to continue his career in the winter and spring for indoor and outdoor track with the rest of his teammates.
Anybody who has ever run at Cooper’s Lake Campground where the Regionals will be hosted knows that it is no ordinary course.
“People that have never run our course contemplate how they can even do it. Our course gets people thinking,” Papa said on the enormous hill that is just past the finish line at Slippery Rock’s home course. “It’s definitely an advantage for those who have run our course before. “
The regionals also introduce a new concept that throws the competition for a loop: the 10,000-meter race.
Regular season and PSAC championship races are all 8,000 meters.
“The 10K is a different type of race, its an extra six or seven minutes of running,” Papa said. “I think at this point that most guys are concerned with hanging on and maintaining focus.”
Slippery Rock looks to exact some sort of revenge at the Regional Championships, due to some close results from the PSAC Championships just two weeks ago.
“We lost by a few points to Mercyhurst at the conference meet, so that is one team our guys are excited to get back at,”Papa said. “We’re very excited about the challenge ahead. We’re ranked ninth in the region. Our hope is to finish one or two spots ahead of that.”
The action kicks off at 10:30 a.m. at Cooper’s Lake Campground in Slippery Rock, Pa.
This is the last team race of the season, as only individuals who qualify for nationals have anything left after this weekend.
“I’m confident that everyone is going to go out and give their best effort. I’m proud of the group and the work they have done this year,” Papa said.