‘This is like year zero’: Cross-country looks to bounce back under new coach

Sophomore Noah Peterson runs during the 2019 season. Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics

Mia Buswell, Contributing Writer

When the VCU cross-country team toes the line in its season-opening meet this Saturday, it’ll be the first time wearing a black and gold uniform for almost half the team.

The team didn’t compete last fall as its season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since they last ran through the grass and trails on the courses, the team has had a large turnover, adding 10 freshmen between the men’s and the women’s teams.

This season, the new bunch of faces have to learn collegiate racing on the fly.

“I think our biggest hurdle is how quickly our new and young talent kind of adjust to collegiate running,” Director of Cross-Country Wesley Stephens said. “It’s not necessarily a talent discrepancy. It’s just how they are going to react when [they] line up and everyone on the line is just as good as you, because this is Division I cross-country and Division I track and field.

Stephens was a graduate assistant with VCU’s cross-country and track and field programs during the 2018 season before making a stop at Alcorn State for three years. He’s replacing Nicole Cook as the director of the men’s and women’s cross-country teams.

Despite the excitement heading into this weekend’s race, returning athletes are still left with the disappointment of losing a season of their college cross-country careers. 

“It was definitely disappointing to have [last year’s] season cancelled, but I know that it was made with good intentions and with everyone’s safety in mind,” said junior cross-country athlete Kasandra Aulenbach.

In March 2020, the NCAA granted all athletes that competed during the COVID-19 pandemic an extra year of eligibility.

Aulenbach added that although the decision was disheartening, she agreed with the decision to call off last season’s competition. 

“I know that it was made with good intentions and with everyone’s safety in mind,” Aluenbach said. “I think that we were all pretty hopeful that we could get back to it and be able to compete eventually for cross-country later on, whether that was later in the semester or later in the year.” 

During the year off, the team still found ways to train and get better.

“[While training by myself], I would get away from the numbers, and work more off of how my body felt rather than the mileage I wanted to do per week or how fast I wanted to [run],” senior cross-country athlete Evan Leach said. 

Stephens, who most recently served as an assistant cross-country and track coach at Alcorn State for three seasons, said the team’s work during the offseason showed when they arrived back on campus.

“The team came in probably in the best shape that any VCU cross-country team has been in in a while,” Stephens said. “I think our biggest kind of challenge is balancing volume and the intensity that we work at — so finding that sweet spot of when we work hard and when we’re still working out and we kind of just take it easy.”

Stephens said he hopes this season is a fresh start for the program. 

“The hope for the season is that we are just going to get better,” Stephens said. “This is like year zero.”

Leach added that the team is inspired to run well under the new coach and believes the past track season’s momentum will carry into the cross-country season.

“There has been a lot leading up to this, and there has been a lot of disappointment and frustration [over] the last three years,” Leach said. “I think there is a lot of momentum from the spring and winter [seasons]. I think the team is really rallied around what we are trying to do this year and the progress we are making, so I am really excited to see the first meet this weekend.” 

The women’s track and field team won its third outdoor Atlantic 10 title in 2021 and Stephens wants to carry that success into the cross-country program. Neither the men’s or women’s team has won the A-10 crown in cross-country or had an individual win the title.

“We are going to be striving to ultimately win a conference championship in men’s and women’s cross-country,” Stephens said. “We have a real opportunity to be much better than we have been in years past.”

The team hopes it can set a new standard for future cross-country runners at VCU. 

“I think we are going to place a lot better than we ever have at the conference meet at the end of the season,” Leach said. “Just aside from that, laying down the framework and the culture for what the next four, five, ten years down the line will look like for VCU cross-country.”

Cross-country will kick off its season at the Spider Alumni Open on Saturday in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

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