By Zachary Watkins – Sports Editor
The Grand Rapids Community College men’s and women’s cross country team had its best finishes of the season, both placing eighth place at the National Junior College Athletic Association Regional Championship at Grand Woods Park, Michigan.
The men tallied 226 points, and finished above Alpena Community College (232), Oakland Community College (258) and Schoolcraft College (264). Lansing Community College topped the field with 29 points.
“It was interesting, because they didn’t see the numbers or the stats right away, but there was almost a little bit of a sad feeling,” GRCC coach Matt Sicilia said. “I don’t think it was necessarily because of the way they ran, but that it was the last race and that the season was over. It was kind of a somber mood. Once we got on the van, went to eat, the spirits were right back up.
The regional final marks the first time the men’s team has beaten another school in its inaugural season.
“They were very excited to beat a team,” Sicilia said. “They were whooping it up in the van and it continued the whole way back. Normally they’re sleeping … It was their No. 1 goal. You can’t control the other teams, but it was sweet to taste victory for them.”
“The pack running right off the bat, a pack of five, were all together towards the mile mark and through two miles. I’ve been preaching all year that it’s always easier to run and maintain your pace, even if you’re hurting, when someone else is there. It’s easier to be accountable to yourself and your team, when you’re sticking together. When my two, three, four, five and six runners stuck together, it was the proudest moment of my season.”
The women’s team finished with 186 points, 10 behind seventh place Oakland Community College. Lansing Community College also won the women’s side with 29 points.
Jody Sellers was the top GRCC runner with a season-best time of 20:52.5.
“They were a little bit better in spirits,” Sicilia said. “They didn’t know where they placed, but they were in a better mood than the guys.”
“Jody had the race of the day. The plan for her was to dream big, similar to what Brett Slayton has been doing. It’s the first time she took that to heart, and set herself out. Her fitness, along with the other kids, wasn’t quite good enough.
“It’s hard to set yourself up mentally, when the possibility of failure is there. Your body uses the oxygen up, and you’re forced to slow down and regain some of that oxygen. The mental mindset is what I wanted to instill on the top runners and really the whole team. Over half way through the race she was 14th, and that was the goal we talked about. Go out and see what happens. You never know. It didn’t quite happen, but she was the 23rd runner, and 18th Michigan runner.
Slayton was GRCC’s fastest runner on the men’s side, coming in at 28:39.0.
“He was never, ever afraid to go after it,” Sicilia said. “One of the things we talked about was setting yourself up in the first mile to do great things. Our guys collectively haven’t ran enough in their life, or the summer to be set up for this, where 90 percent of our competition is.
“Right from the first race, he was never afraid to get out, or try. He wasn’t afraid to put himself out there. He always set himself up. He ran without being afraid. A lot of people are afraid about what they’ll have left for the last part of the race. He was always pushing that boundary and trying to set himself up to see if that breakthrough will come. He led by example from day one.”
Now that its season is over, GRCC moves on without Jarquell Mitchell and Tyson DeWald.
“Now the important task of recruiting starts,” Sicilia said. “Our team this year didn’t have any recruits because it was formed so late. It was about finding people at GRCC who wanted to run. None of them ran probably half of what they ran if we would have formed the team in April, rather than July.
“Two things that are essential for our team … over the next couple months, is recruiting and offseason conditioning. Great runners are formed during the nine months of the offseason. We’re going to run five, six days a week from next week, until next season.
GRCC’s most improved runners are Alicia Geene, who turned in a season-best time of 25:58.5 at the regional, and Giancarlo Hernandez, whose top time of 31:08.04 came at the Jayhawk Invite.
“Alicia is our last runner, but she’s worked so hard through injury issues,” Sicilia said. “Every single race she improved. She’s dropped five minutes off of her 5k time. Her best time ever was her sophomore year in high school, so three years ago. A lot of the girls talk about how they could run as fast as they did when they were 20-pounds lighter. I think she’s the only one who matched it.
“For Giancarlo, the improvement was part of what he showed, but he really stood out as running with great heart and determination every race. I think mentally he pushed himself just as hard, if not harder than anyone else on the team. When he had a bad race, it was only 20 seconds behind his good race.”
The teams have formed a bond over the season, and that is what Sicilia feels brings them so close together and made this season special.
“The thing I’m going to miss most about these guys and girls being together, is just the building of the team itself,” Sicilia said. “The camaraderie and family atmosphere we were able to establish — it was the coaching staff’s goal at the beginning of the season. The atmosphere was contagious. We had guys that would go out to eat together, and the girls would take pictures together throughout the week. They weren’t just a team. They were friends. Just seeing that happen as a coach is priceless.
“As a team, you want them to be together and support each other just like a family would. You want to be able to look at everyone on your team and see that they’re in it for the right reason. Just seeing them develop friendships, seeing how they respected and treated each other was the highlight of my season. We have such a diverse team, and I hope to build on that. We’ve got kids from all socioeconomic, cultural and family backgrounds. It just seemed to work.”
Despite the season just ending, Sicilia is already looking forward to next season and feels the future for GRCC cross country is bright.
“I’d like to make it to the national meet, which this year was in Texas,” Sicilia said. “I’d like to finish second in conference for both men and women. I’m not ruling out winning, but I’d like at least second. It’s a big jump for our results, but that’s how confident I am in the offseason and recruits we’re bringing in.
“I’m excited for the conditioning over the next nine months. We’ll be on the indoor track at GVSU and run some road races. We can’t run as a school, but they’re going to run on their own. It’s going to pay huge dividends for next fall.”