There is a wave of momentum building for the Knox College men’s cross country team. Since finishing ninth at the Forester Invitational in September, the team came in third out of six teams at the Titan Invitational two weeks ago and took second out of thirteen teams at the Illinois College Invitational last weekend.
“The key to our recent success has been team unity. We are learning to race in packs, whether those are two-person or three-person groups,” sophomore Gabe Moreno said.
“Part of why this pack mentality works well is because of inner-team competition and wanting to be in the top five scoring positions, but I feel it’s predominately the understanding that we can accomplish far more when we run side-by-side. This way we are twice as strong mentally, twice as determined to pass anyone ahead and determined not to let the teammate beside us down,” he said. “It’s one thing to quit in a race and let yourself down — it’s another completely to quit and leave your teammate down.”
This tactic of pack running is a core concept that head coach Dan Zierfuss has drilled since the beginning of the season.
“It really comes back to what we’ve done with our training this year. We want to make sure that our top five are really close together, because this is how we can maximize points,” he said. “I think they have done a nice job of making sure they peak at the right time.”
Moreno and senior Kevin Box have finished in the top five individually in each of the last two meets, while trading places as the top team finisher. Additionally, both runners have improved their times in each of the last three races. Throw in junior Sean Choate, a Midwest Conference performer of the week earlier this season, and the team has a triumvirate of top-level runners.
“We are thrilled with how they have done this season,” Zierfuss said. “Sean started a little ahead of the other guys in training, but we did not want to rush Gabe or Kevin when we didn’t have to.”
Moreno believes the individual competition only fuels a better team performance.
“In-team competition has totally been a motivation for Kevin, Sean and myself to do better,” Moreno said. “Each of us wants to be number one because we feel we deserve it — which we all do. This assures that the three of us leave everything we have out on the course and thus place well in the meet. So ultimately, our desires to excel are resulting in a greater purpose — the success of the team.”
With the MWC next on the schedule for the Prairie Fire, Zierfuss believes the team is primed for a solid finish.
“We put the conference meet as our top priority and we have been working toward that all season. While the other tournaments have been important, we really have used those as practice to get the team to peak for conference.”
Zierfuss’ excitement is seconded by Moreno.
“We’re stoked for conference. With two weeks to go and our best meet coming last week, the team couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “Our goal is to have at least three runners in the top 20 … If we do this and our 4th and 5th guys can keep improving as they’ve done, we’ll be in for a great team finish.”
On the women’s side senior Emma Swanson has been the top finisher for Knox in each meet this season.
“Emma had not done cross country before this season, so for her to come out and do what she has done is very impressive,” Zierfuss said.
Zierfuss is also pleased with the way the women have performed as a team in recent weeks.
“The ladies are doing a real nice job of committing to the pack running,” he said.
Zierfuss’ claim is supported by the fact that following Swanson, Knox’s next three runners, sophomore Yael Cody, freshman Jade Ivy and senior Brenna DeGan finished within five positions of each other.
The team took eighth in the competition, and joins the men in Ripon, Wisconsin for the MWC Championships Saturday, Oct. 29.