Arrick Wilson, Contributing Writer
The future is bright for the VCU men’s cross-country team, with underclassmen leading the way. The Rams have been stepping up to the competition with eight underclassmen at the helm; among them, freshman Kendall Phillips and sophomore Johnny White have led the Rams in their first two meets this season.
“You know, we’re all really a tight-knit team,” White said. “The gap between our scores is really small, which is a really good thing when it comes to championships.”
Wesley Stephens, the director of VCU’s cross-country team, said he isn’t surprised by hard work paying off for White. Stephens also said that as an athlete, White is dedicated, and a hard worker who does all the right things.
Men’s cross-country finished third among the competition at the JMU Invitational on Sept. 17. Phillips was a top performer for the Rams, leading the team in meets for the second time in a row this season.
“They just understand how to compete,” Stephens said.
Stephens said that the accomplishments made by young athletes like Phillips and White inspire other athletes to keep pushing, because rather than older runners leading the way — their peers are.
Phillips was also named Atlantic 10 Rookie Performer of the Week for the week of Sept. 13-19, after placing 25th at the Spider Alumni season opener and 11th at the JMU Invitational. Phillips said he was taken by surprise by the honor, but contributed it to working hard.
“It felt great. I was like, sitting in study hall, I opened my phone, and then I just see a post on Instagram. They surprised me,” Phillips said, “… I’m just glad the work’s paid off.”
The Howard, Maryland, native is not new to having success; over the summer in the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games, Phillips won first place in the men’s 2000-meter steeplechase.
“You know, Kendall is a national champion … coming in he just won the AAU Junior Olympic National Championship in the steeplechase right before he came to VCU,” Stephens said. “So, like, three weeks before he came on campus, he won against a field of some talented, you know, runners.”
White also finished behind Phillips, placing 28th in the Spider Alumni season opener, and 12th in the JMU Invitational.
“It was a good performance from them,” Stephens said. “Still, a long way to go, but I think it’s just a good indicator that things are going in the right direction for us to see that success this early.”
With the majority of the team being young underclassmen, Stephens said that the team has largely improved with discipline this season.
“They’re very disciplined. And I’ll say, that’s the main difference of seeing a lot of successes, like the discipline of the athletes in the focus,” Stephens said.
Stephens mentioned an example of the discipline and responsibility of the underclassmen, when the athletes were late to a workout while he was out of town.
“I had to go to Texas last Tuesday and Wednesday to recruit. And I found out the men were late for the run after weights as well as the report to run out the weights,” Stephens said.
Stephens usually makes the team do pushups when they arrive late. On this occasion, the team took the initiative to do the pushups on their own.
The underclassmen are also still getting adjusted to the longer races like the eight-kilometer run and 10-kilometer run, unlike the standard high school five-kilometer run.
“We’re all kind of new to the [eight kilometer] with that being a longer race. I think the more we do in the regular season … we’ll be a lot better off when the time comes,” White said.
Stephens expects senior Hisham Vohra to play an important role for the team. In 2019, Vohra earned A-10 all-conference honors and in 2020 he placed 61st in the 5-mile competition at the A-10 championship.
“You know, he’s [Vohra] one of the … top 20 distance runners in our conference,” Stephens said.
Vohra has already started playing a hefty role, as he led the Rams to 10th place at the Paul Short Run on Oct. 1, finishing among the top 50 in the race.
“I think [the men’s cross-country team] are the type of team where, like, they’re going to rise to the occasion every time that they’re challenged and that’s going to just keep propelling us forward,” Stephens said.
The Rams’ cross-country regular season will conclude on Oct. 15 with the XC23 Invitational. The A-10 championships will be on Oct. 30 in Cedarville, Ohio. NCAA regionals follow on Nov. 13 in Louisville, Kentucky.