Welcome to the VMI track and field/cross country in-season blog, "Tales From the Track". Here, you will find observations throughout the year, as regular postings are planned from the staff throughout all three seasons of this sport - Cross Country, Indoor Track and Field and Outdoor Track and Field.
Entry Eight - Garrett Brickner - March 20
As the VMI Track and Field team heads into our first meet of the outdoor season, I am optimistic as to how we will be able to respond after our indoor season. Our team is young, nearly 1/3 of them are freshmen, with this last season having been just their first indoor championship. In fact, some of them had never had an indoor track season during high school. I think the indoor championship was a great reminder to them that you can’t rest on your laurels or past accomplishments, and that track is a sport of daily hard work and dedication to reach an end result. Simply trying to flip a light switch during ‘big meets’ will not cut it at the college level.
The outdoor season brings hope and a chance for redemption, though we were only 13 points from a 3rd place team finish, it was nowhere near capable of where I think we should be as a team. Keeping everything in context, we did have some very outstanding individual performances and brought a group of twelve Keydets up to Boston to compete at the IC4A Indoor Championship.
We head to our neighbors in Lexington this weekend for the Washington & Lee Track and Field Carnival. This meet will provide a wide range of competition for all of our athletes and based on the field will be one of the biggest meets we could possibly attend outside of our championship meet(s). We will then take a contingent down to UNF (University of North Florida) in Jacksonville for a meet that will hopefully provide a great avenue for some warm weather and fast times. We first competed at this track last year at NCAA Regionals and it is a great facility so we are looking forward to returning this season. Rah Virginia Mil!
Entry Seven - Jennifer Fazioli - November 14
Following a meet as big as the conference championships, there can tend to be a letdown among athletes that could potentially inhibit their ability to focus and prepare for another post-season championship caliber meet. Hoping to guard against this in the days leading up to the meet, both myself and my men’s captain, Cabell Willis, continually stressed the need to go into the Regional meet dedicated to putting forth a good performance. The goal was to help the program take another step forward in its desire to contend at the highest level of Division I athletics. I needn’t have worried; however, as most everyone went into the competition with the mindset necessary to compete at that intensity and it showed in their performances. They were all ready to run their best on what ultimately turned out to be a fast and hot day to race.
On the women’s side there are not enough superlatives to describe how much Jenna Moye has progressed this season and regained her confidence. Jenna and I discussed before the race the need to be aggressive but under control and set a possible time goal at 21:30, which would produce yet another personal best. Her workouts leading up to the race had been phenomenal and gave every indication that her last cross country race as a VMI cadet would be an excellent one. She moved up the whole race, maintaining her smooth stride and looked like she could have picked off another 15 people if the race had gone another kilometer further. She remarked after the race that she was disappointed that the season was over as she wanted to continue racing; I would certainly concur with that as she was improving in large increments each time she stepped on the line. Perhaps my only regret is that I will only have the opportunity to coach her for one year. Both of my senior captains must have been determined to finish their VMI careers with strong races as Leah Schubel also set a personal record yet again, following up her breakthrough race at conference with a second convincing performance. They will both be missed and have left the VMI women’s program better off. Our freshman, Kelsey Newcomb, came in with a knee injury caused by her surgically repaired knee flaring up. We did not think that Kelsey would be able to run conference or Regionals but she was thoroughly committed to her rehab exercises and daily treatments, while cross training on every day except workout days. I stopped asking her how the knee was doing because her standard response was that she was ‘ok’; clearly she was not going to reveal any pain she was experiencing and her dedication to the team was appreciated by all. Her knee is now getting stronger and will only require a bit more rest before preparations begin for the indoor season and a move to the track where she has always excelled.
Entering the men’s race, I was projecting a finish in the top half of the teams entered and we just missed that, but certainly not because of a lack of some standout performances from most all of the men. Andrey Dmitriev had been experiencing some pain in his knee that cropped up several days before the race and left him hard pressed to walk the first morning it occurred. However he had resolved to race aggressively from the start in his last cross country race and he did just that, going out with the leaders early on and coming through the mile in 4:35. While I would have preferred that he was a bit more conservative early on I definitely was not disappointed with his mentality and desire to “go after it.” His finishing time of 31:07 was the fastest ever produced at the NCAA Regionals by a VMI male and left him convinced that maybe the 10K is his true event! Cabell experienced a dilemma early on in the race when his shoe came untied and he waged an internal debate about whether it was better to stop and re-tie it or let it go and risk losing the shoe. Ultimately he stopped to retie it and lost about 15 seconds by his estimate but otherwise did not let it shake him or send him into panic mode, a response that perfectly sums up Cabell’s outlook on life and racing. I knew that Hartnel Paultre (HP) was ready for a break out performance as well as he was now fully healthy and over the head cold/fever that had impacted his race at Conference; we had discussed 32:30 as a goal time and that is what he did. HP might quite possibly be one of the most “coachable” athletes I have ever worked with and the ending to this cross season only puts him in better position to succeed in the 10 on the track. I was also particularly pleased with Steven Trayer who moved up the entire race and never had anyone pass him after the 3K mark, evenly splitting the race exactly. I have found that if I can speak with Steven literally on the line, 10 minutes prior to the start of the race, it helps him focus and race better. I do have to say though that as well as they came out of this race, the same could not be said of their feet with nearly all experiencing blisters and torn skin, making their cool down a bit comical.
I feel as if my first cross country season at VMI went by in a blur and certainly was an eventful one. I am truly thankful that I was offered and accepted the challenge of coaching at an institution such as VMI and will be forever grateful that I have been blessed to work with some truly amazing young people.
Entry Six - Jennifer Fazioli - October 31
The week of the conference championships was not as calm and uneventful as I would have hoped. Yet while we experienced some adversity, the team was able to overcome it and direct their focus in the proper direction. One of our freshmen, Kelsey Newcomb, was dealing with some knee problems. I made the decision to cross train her that week, and only had her run the workout we had on Tuesday so that she was able to get in the race pace work. But entering conference, we were unsure of just how well her knee would let her perform. On the men’s side our top runner, Andrey Dmitriev, was also having trouble with his knee. I kept him off it as well until the shakeout before the race, when he indicated it was beginning to feel better; it would prove not to be an issue during the race, which was certainly a relief after he was unable to finish our last workout prior to the conference race. Apparently injuries happen in clusters as our number three runner, Will Thompson suffered a hip injury and was unable to race. That, at the time, seems like it might prove devastating to the team’s chances.
The men’s fourth place finish was really a testament to the ability of each athlete to step up after the loss of Will and push each other forward to the point that I could not have asked for a better performance from the group as a whole. Booth Hornsby, a senior who had dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career here at VMI, had his second solid race in a row, following up his performance at Appalachian State to step in as our 4th man. Booth has been working to maintain his upper body form all season to prevent the twisting action and head bobbing that tended to happen whenever he was tired at the end of a race. He exhibited none of that on Saturday and off of that fact alone I knew it would be a good race before he even hit the line. Jason Thorpe filled in as our 5th man, maintaining his focus all the way through the race, thus avoiding the mental lapses that had plagued him throughout the season and prevented him from running to his full potential. Hartnel Paultre also gave every effort despite waking up sick the night before. The teamwork and ability of this team to push each other was perhaps demonstrated the best by the races of Andrey and Cabell Willis. They began running in tandem a couple of miles into the race and remained that way until the final homestretch, with Andrey admitting afterward that if Cabell had not been there he would not have run nearly as well. Cabell’s mere presence may have aided Andrey in this race, but his overall leadership lifted the entire team in which several team members ran personal best times on that day.
As with the men, the ladies’ team also received several banner performances, fairly remarkable considering that the number of healthy runners was minimal. In addition to Kelsey, Nina Srikongyos (one of our top 7) had been suffering from leg pain that we were concerned about. The plan was to get her through conference before resting her. Neither Kelsey nor Nina should have been a concern as both raced quite well, Kelsey especially. She set yet another personal best for the 5K and was able to close the gap between herself and our top pack, stepping in as our 4th runner quite well. Nina ran just off the pace that she had set at Appalachian State and her efforts were appreciated greatly by the rest of the team. Perhaps no one was more impressive than Jenna Moye. I did not share my exact expectations with Jenna prior to the race, but I fully expected her to finish in the top 5 simply by running what she was capable of. Jenna’s workouts had been effortless and under pace for several weeks and she remarked after Appalachian State that she felt as if she had more to give upon crossing the finish line. She set another PR, broke the school record and although she said that the race was extremely tough, I still expect her to progress again at NCAA Regionals in two weeks. Her best running is still ahead of her. Leah Schubel made a determination from the gun to be aggressive and she was for the entire race, driving herself to her lifetime best and her highest conference finish while just missing All Conference honors. I have never seen Leah so ecstatic after a race and believe all the workouts which seem to leave her perpetually sore have paid off.
As we look forward to Regionals, we may be entering with only 5-6 healthy women and few men who have experience with the 10K distance but we are proceeding with a group of individuals who are well prepared and eager to take that next step.
Entry Five - Jennifer Fazioli - October 16
For our last tune-up meet prior to the Big South Conference Championship, we traveled down to Appalachian State for the Blue Ridge Open Invitational. App State hosts several of these meets every year on a fairly flat (only one notable hill) and fast course. It was also beneficial for us to race on this type of terrain, as the conference meet will be on similar footing (grass) and has produced similarly fast times in the past. In the last several weeks we have done more of our workouts on the (often-times) soft grass of the soccer, lacrosse and rugby practice fields over on North Post in preparation for this type footing and the energy level it will require to run on such a surface. Soft grass can be a drain on an athlete’s quads and calves as it can produce the same effect as running in sand.
On the men’s side we chose to race a few different athletes than we had at Paul Short so as to gain a better feel for who had the potential to help us at conference. Prior to the race we had discussed with the men using a different strategy than they had been used to using; Encouraging some to go out faster if they had been conservative in the past or to focus on a particular segment of the race in which they had previously lost focus or where they had fallen off their initial pace. The idea was to experiment here, at a meet that had no bearing on conference, to determine if there was a better method of racing that they could employ and then putting that into effect at the conference championships. No one did this better than Andrey Dmitriev and Will Thompson, both of whom had gone out conservatively in their three early season races and then gradually worked their way up. This time they both went out relatively aggressively (Andrey was with the leaders from the gun) and then settled in and hung on. This strategy seemed to work well for both of them, allowing them to improve their placing relative to the rest of the competition and set substantial PRs. (Though both would later say that they felt the course was short, while some of us contended that the day and course were just fast because it was dry and perfect racing weather; an argument that would continue most of the way home). Cabell Willis was solid again after having a relatively stressful week academically and being a bit fatigued the week before. Cabell is very good about knowing what he needs to do to be well rested and ready to race when he steps on that line, regardless of what else he has going on and he did so again on this day. The other race that stands out in my view was that of redshirt junior, Booth Hornsby who has grappled with his share of injuries during his career at VMI. Indeed, he came into the race dealing with chronic shin pain (and an old knee injury that flairs up occasionally and will require surgery at some point to correct) that we have been managing throughout the season and still found himself only 2 seconds off of finishing as our 5th man. His form was markedly improved, something we also have been working on and his hard work and determination to stick with it appears to have paid off.
Similarly on the women’s side we had a number of outstanding performances, and just like the men several of them attempted different racing strategies than they had used in the past. Leah Schubel ran a great race, breaking 19 min, but came away with the knowledge that going out at 5:45 pace is probably a bit too fast for her and did not allow her to finish as strong as she would have liked. What is positive about this is that we can readjust for conference and we now know what does not work. With Michelle Church, we decided that working together with Leah for the first 2 miles would aid our team and her individually as she strives to return to the level she exhibited early in her freshmen cross country season. After two miles she would reassess where she was and then try to pick off as many people as she could (I asked her to count how many she ended up passing and report to me at the conclusion of the race). While tired at the end she was still able to pick up two people without any passing her; producing a small victory and another step forward. Our consistent leader, Jenna Moye, was in the lead pack from the beginning and never lost her position throughout. Though producing yet another PR for the second consecutive race, Jenna felt that she left too much on the course and that she could have gone even faster; certainly an encouraging sign leading into conference. Freshman Natalie Young was equally impressive as she seemed to run more aggressively from the start this race and only made up ground as she went; never struggling as she might have done only a few short weeks before. The women do not have the depth that the men do (where positions 6-12 seem to be interchangeable from week to week) but it certainly seems that the quality is there to carry us to a top 3 showing at conference. For a coach I couldn’t have asked for a better showing heading into our conference championships.
Entry Four - Jennifer Fazioli - October 3
The third meet of our season brought a large jump in the level of competition that we had faced through the first two meets of the year. This past week, we traveled up to Lehigh University in PA for the Paul Short Invitational, one of the premier meets on the East Coast. Both our men and women were seeded in the gold races (the top race out of the three held on the day) and competed against some of the top teams in the country; including Georgetown on the women’s side, the 2011 NCAA XC Champions. While perhaps a little bit of a shock to the system, all seemed to handle the new caliber of athletes and the added challenge of running against 40 teams in a narrow and muddy course, well.
Our men were racing without one of our top 5, as Hartnel Paultre had sprained his ankle during one of our workouts earlier in the week. Even without HP, the men were able to average 25:59 over a challenging (owing to the weather and condition of the course) 8K and only had a 1:15 spread between our first and fifth man, which most certainly would have been an even slimmer margin with HP in the mix. Led by Cabell Willis’ return to health and the front of our group, they were able to run a bit more aggressively. Indeed they were forced to do so by the crowded start and to avoid wasted energy from having to weave their way through the crowd later in the race and they handled this faster start well. Andrey Dmitriev, though proclaiming the aerobic effort to be more difficult than he would have liked, took another step forward in his return to full strength and finished as our second man right behind Cabell. Sean Helmke was able to PR yet again in only his 2nd career 8K, and Will Thompson ran another solid race while also discovering that maybe flats weren’t the smartest way to go on a muddy and water logged course! Though the men finished 27th out of 37 teams, I feel that we would have been in the top 20 with HP at full strength and that would have put us amongst quality teams, virtually all of whom are ranked in their respective regions.
The women, like the men, were facing a level of racing that they had never experienced before. In addition to the aforementioned national championship Georgetown squad, teams such as Cornell, Yale, Dartmouth, Providence, and Villanova were all in our race; all teams that have been traditional distance powerhouses for many years. The ladies would also have to take a step up in distance to the 6K, which may have presented an especially daunting challenge for our younger runners, particularly Kelsey Newcomb who was recruited primarily as an 800 runner. However, Kelsey displayed no hint that she was either intimidated by the distance or the course and did well in her first 6k. Jenna Moye continues to look like her senior year might be her best year yet as she set a PR for the distance and finished strong, kicking down a handful of runners in the last straightaway. The women’s spread between our first and fifth athletes was a bit larger than the men and that is certainly a goal to strive for in the future; we would like to see our women pack together and feed off of each other during the race similar to what the men have done to produce faster times. Both teams were able to analyze and articulate what worked in their races and what they can work on in the coming weeks heading into our conference meet. Those lessons learned might be the most beneficial thing to come out of the weekend, along with a new sense of confidence that they can and will eventually compete with the best in the country.
Entry Three - Jennifer Fazioli - September 17
Our second meet of the season was another fairly low-key competition close to home at the JMU Invitational, which was held at the New Market Battlefield, which is, of course, an important location in VMI history and one of the early sites incoming freshmen are introduced to in the opening stages of the Ratline.
For this race, the men would run the full 8K distance, and with a team comprised mostly of freshmen, this meet would be a true test. On a relatively hilly and slow course the men held up well; winning for the second weekend in a row by utilizing a strategic pack running mentality. One of our freshmen men ended up leading the group, as Sean Helmke, finished 3rd overall and first among VMI men. To say that Sean’s race was impressive would be an understatement as he held steady the entire race, never dropping off the main pack. Our next 5 runners would all finish within 16 seconds of one another, averaging 26:10 on the day, over 30 seconds better than the next closest team.
Other solid performances included Andrey Dmitriev (5th overall, 3rd for VMI), who continues his quick ascension back to full strength following hamstring and foot issues. Both Cabell Willis and Hartnel Paultre (4th and 6th overall respectively) finished strong after both came into the race with lingering sickness. Will Thompson was our 5th scorer and is training through a succession of 95 mile weeks meaning he was running on legs that were not fully rested, with the goal being to peak (and taper) later in the season. Overall, the men put together a solid day of racing and took the next step in their preparation for our conference championships at the end of October. They face their next true test in less than 2 weeks at the Paul Short Invitational, one of the premier meets on the East Coast. The goal there is to continue running as a strong pack while testing ourselves against another level of competition that we have not yet experienced this season.
The women employed a different strategy than the men; choosing to race to their abilities and not being dependent on their teammates as much. Whereas the top group of men finished as a pack with a small spread among them, the women had a gap of nearly a minute and a half between our first and fifth runners. In the future the objective will be to work off of each other as they have in workouts to ensure they are pushing each other to their fullest potential. Still, the women were able to take another small step forward in their progress from our home invitational from two weeks ago.
Several of them have been working through some nagging injuries that have reduced their training a bit, with an eye towards having them healthy for the championship part of the season. Despite a wrong turn that caused her to have to backtrack and lose a few seconds, Jenna Moye paced the VMI women again with her strong 4th place showing. Another solid performance was also turned in by freshmen, Natalie Young, who again was our 2nd runner. Natalie’s training is beginning to become more consistent as she adjusts to life at VMI as is fellow freshman Kelsey Newcomb who rounded out the scoring in 5th place. Senior Leah Schubel demonstrated once again that her dedication with her summer training is paying off as she was moved up the entire race and was VMI’s 3rd scorer. The women ended up 2nd to a formidable (and complete) JMU team. Overall the women, like the men, were able to establish another layer of work and effort that can be built upon as we move further into the season.
Entry Two - Jennifer Fazioli - September 4
September 1st brought our first meet of the season, doubling as our home cross country invitational. This duality ended up working out well since we were able to have the team start out at a low key meet allowing them to sleep in their own beds, as well as having some familiarity with the course. The men's team would also be aided by the fact that they would be racing under their normal distance of 8K. We were able to enjoy the support of many parents and several members of the administration including Colonel Hutchings and our director of compliance, David Sigler, all of which made this a positive opener for the team.
Our women started strong on a relatively slow course, taking the top 3 spots. Our two freshmen women (Natalie Young and Kelsey Newcomb) did well to place 2nd and 10th in their first collegiate meet, showing few ill effects after less than a week's worth of training coming out of Matriculation Week. Jenna Moye made it look easy, pulling away in the 2nd mile for the win and starting her senior season off on a positive note. Knowing that she is finally fully healthy has given Jenna a renewed confidence that this has the potential to be her best season at VMI. Leah Schubel was able to realize the full benefits of her consistent and dedicated training this summer, and her performance on "the field" matched her leadership as one of our team captains off of it. Michelle Church continues to work her way back to her form from her freshmen cross country season and has dedicated herself to improving her running mechanics to become even more efficient.
The men's race was more tightly bunched and our men worked well together as a pack throughout the race. Indeed, less than 20 seconds separated our top 7 men with runners 8-13 spread over only another 12 seconds, making the decision of whom to race and travel over the next several weeks a difficult one but a dilemma that is a good one to have. Cabell Willis won the first cross country race he has contested in 2 years, while freshmen Avery Martin demonstrated that he could be a force in cross country as well as in the mid distances on the track after finishing a close second. Will Thompson will only get better as the distance moves to 8K and freshmen Sean Helmke continued the set of nice performances he has put together since arriving on post nearly 3 weeks ago. Andrey Dmitriev continues to work his way back from a strained hamstring incurred last track season, starting the race conservatively but finishing strong. The men have considerable depth and should be a formidable presence in the conference for years to come.
All in all, it was a solid weekend, and all left it relatively healthy and able to put in a good long run the very next day. We are all ready to move on to a quality two-week training block before returning to action (and full conference distance for the men) at JMU on September 15th.
Entry One - Jennifer Fazioli - August 23
Greetings from the land of VMI cross country and track. I am new to the VMI family and having only arrived on Post in April, I had little time to acquaint myself with the team and VMI life before my athletes headed home for the summer. After holding individual meetings with each athlete to learn more about their running and racing history I, at least, had gathered enough of an information base to begin putting together their individual summer plans. Keeping in contact with the team during the summer to ensure their training is going well, while also providing them with some direction, is essential to their preparation for the fall season. Ultimately though it is up to the individual athlete to put in the work and as a coach you trust that they will do so, especially at the Division I level.
I also had the opportunity to reach out to each and every recruit that had committed to the team as part of the 2016 class. Seeing the majority of them compete at the outdoor state meet in June was particularly helpful as I continued to build a relationship with a group of athletes that I did not personally lead through the recruitment process. However, the class we are bringing in is especially exciting with nine solid men and two quality women being added to the cross country and distance mix. The majority of our men lowered their PRs throughout the spring season, making the incoming class’ credentials even stronger than we originally thought.
We had two VISAA state champions with Avery Martin (Fork Union Military Academy, VA) taking the 1600 and Guy Shelby (Trinity Episcopal, VA) claiming the 3200. The relative youth of the men’s team sets up our distance squad for a potentially great next 4 years. On the women’s side, Natalie Young (Forest Park, VA) took a page out of the men’s book as she significantly lowered her personal records in the 1600 and 3200 as well throughout the season, culminating in a 5:07 1600 and 10:53 3200. She finished up her career with a 13th place showing in the 5000 (17:48) at the New Balance National meet in Greensboro, N.C. in her first 5K on the track. Similarly, Kelsey Newcomb (Dinwiddie, Va.) will contribute to a growing mid-distance program on the women’s side with a 2:16 800 and 3:05 1000 credit to her resume. She has been working hard this summer to increase her mileage and figures to be a big contributor in cross this season.
I decided to hold our home collegiate and high school invitational in conjunction with one another this year. They will be held early, upon the conclusion of the first week of classes and the hope is to provide a quality meet that will continue to attract high caliber high schools and colleges in the region for years to come. The meet will once again be held at the Lexington Horse Center just off campus with some slight alterations to the previous course. Staged completely on grass and with some solid rolling hills, it will be a challenging course that should still run fairly fast. I elected to have all of the competitors race the 5K distance for ease of use with the course and, as is common practice for early season meets, to have the men race at ‘under-distance.’ This is done primarily so that they have the opportunity to acclimate to racing again, before moving to the much more rigorous 8K distance, a considerable transition for our incoming freshmen.
Certainly the next few weeks will be spent preparing our own team for the first competition while laying the foundation for the rest of the season, but the focus will also be on putting on an excellent and efficient meet to represent VMI in the best possible manner. VMI cross country has lined up some exciting meets this season including attending JMU’s opener at a historical New Market Battlefield, heading up to the prestigious Paul Short Invitational at the end of September, and traveling down to Appalachian State for their scenic (and competitive) Blue Ridge Open before finishing up with our two most important meets, the Big South Championships at Winthrop University and the NCAA Southeast Regional in Charlotte, N.C. I am looking forward to an excellent first season at VMI!
One last note: while I am prepared for the normal coaching duties and accompanying issues, I also realize that VMI will bring a whole unique set of circumstances that will shape my training philosophy and methods. Others in the athletic department as well as my colleagues on the track coaching staff have attempted to paint a vivid picture of what matriculation week will look like, what daily life entails for our athletes, and the additional responsibilities and challenges incurred by both rats and upperclassmen alike at VMI. Still, I think this will be a ‘learn as you go’ type of experience that will be like any other, and that is undoubtedly what makes VMI such a distinctive educational institution.