By Andy Jobanek, Sports Information Intern
WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The recent Northwest Conference cross country championship races happened to fall on Halloween, and the Whitman College men’s cross country team sent a few chills down the spines of its competitors.
The Missionary men placed fourth, their highest finish in a decade.
| Cory Rand
But it wasn’t the fourth-place finish that frightened other NWC teams. The scary part was that the resurgent Whitman men’s team did so well with three freshmen placing among its top four.
Coach Malcolm Dunn admits to some surprise that his freshmen have shown such maturity this season. It is more common, he says, to see first-year men struggle as they make the jump from running 5,000 meters in high school to 8,000 meters in college.
For whatever reason, Dunn’s five freshmen hit the ground running this fall, proving themselves in races all season and earning the respect of older teammates.
“That’s the neat thing about cross country -- it’s not really a hierarchical system of teammates,” Dunn says. “If you’re a senior, that’s great. If you’re a freshman, that’s great. It all comes down to who’s going to run the fastest.”
And at four of six races this season, the fastest Whitman runner has been a freshman, beginning with Alfredo Villasenor at the Whitman Invitational.
“That was kind of a ‘hello!’ to the rest of the team,” Dunn says. “To have a freshman finish first for us was kind of an eye opener, especially because it was a freshman nobody really knew.”
Nobody knew about Villasenor because he did not contact Dunn until two weeks before the start of the season.
“Although I liked running a lot in high school, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue,” Villasenor says. That uncertainty continued until his first practice with the team.
“I really liked Malcolm and I thought the team had a lot of quality people in it,” Villasenor says. “It really wasn’t the running that convinced me to stay on the team. It was the people.”
| Alfredo Villasenor (left)
Villasenor’s fellow freshmen express similar sentiments about their Whitman teammates.
“Cross country kids are just so cool and so friendly,” Cory Rand says. “From the very first practice, everyone was my friend. Even though I’m a freshman, everyone was still nice to me. I couldn’t imagine being at Whitman without being on the team because automatically you’re friends with 30 people.”
Rand, like Villasenor, has surprised people so far this season. After finishing as Whitman’s sixth runner in his first two races, Rand ran first for the Missionaries at three of the last four races (he was the second Whitman finisher in one of those races).
At NWC Championships, Rand paced the Missionaries by placing 11th overall in a tough field of runners. That earned him all-conference honors.
Both Rand and Dunn attribute his success to increased long-distance workouts.
“This summer I didn’t really run at all, or minimally, like maybe 15 miles a week due to some medical problems,” Rand says. “But here at school I’ve started to run 50 to 60 miles a week and it’s really helped. I’ve never run so much in my life.”
Dunn believes Rand’s improvement could continue with more training at the longer distances. “I think Cory’s just now coming into his own and could make some big strides.”
Dunn also expects to see Villasenor make more competitive strides as he settles into long distance training.
A third Missionary freshman, Hugh Parker, is no stranger to running many miles as part of his regular training regimen.
“Hugh is a guy who probably has more miles under his belt as a freshman than we’ve had in a long time,” Dunn says. “For his sake, I wish we were running 10,000 instead of 8,000 meters because I think the longer the race, the better he’s going to do relative to the other guys in the field.”
| Hugh Parker (right)
Parker has also proven himself this season, finishing second among his teammates at the conference championships, and placing in Whitman’s top five in every race.
“Every time I’ve raced, I’ve been happy with how I’ve done,” Parker says. “I’m pleased with where I am so far and I’m hoping to progress even further in what’s left of the season.”
Parker, along with Rand and Villasenor, will likely finish the season at this Saturday’s West Region meet, which takes place in Claremont, Calif. The Missionary men need a top-two finish in the team scoring to earn an automatic berth at nationals.
Taylor Mesojednik and Whitney Griggs, the other two freshmen on the Whitman roster, did not race at the conference meet, and won’t be making the trip to regionals.
Mesojednik, who missed the NWC championships because of illness, typically finished seventh or eighth among his teammates in races earlier in the season.
Griggs, meanwhile, floated in and out of Whitman’s top ten this season, and Dunn believes he will improve with more training.
“If Whitney, who is really a smooth and efficient runner, can get some more miles under his belt and add some strength, he can jump up and challenge for those top seven to ten spots,” Dunn says.
Griggs knows he needs to train more consistently if he wants elevate his standing on the team. “I knew I needed to train more (last summer) -- I just didn’t have the time with my job.”
Mesojednik says he and his freshman mates can benefit by pushing each other in practice. If all five to do that, he says, they can help deliver on the promise they showed at the conference championships, and maybe challenge for one of the top two NWC spots in the years ahead.
“We’ve got to keep training, keep motivated, keep driving toward it,” Mesojednik says.
| Malcolm Dunn
“We also need to make sure that as classes come in behind us, we bring them into fold and get them moving forward. As long as we stay competitive, but competitive in a friendly way, then we can push each other.”
This year’s freshmen have also prodded some of their older teammates to compete at a higher level, Dunn says. “It’s definitely made them aware that for them to stay in the top seven with five new people fighting for those spots, they need to work a little harder.”
In the meantime, Dunn is anxious to see what Villasenor, Rand and Parker, along with the rest of the team, can do at regionals.
“I’m really curious to see if maybe we can go down and beat teams like Pomona-Pitzer or Occidental, two schools that our men’s team hasn’t even considered beating in a number of years,” Dunn says. “For us to match up against schools with those types of programs would be pretty special.”
This Saturday’s regional races take place on the Pomona-Pitzer campus in Claremont, Calif. It won’t be Halloween, but a young Whitman men’s team might still scare a few teams.
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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; firstname.lastname@example.org