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Climbing to the Top
Hard work and dedication has transformed Vasili Papastrat into a standout distance runner
September 26, 2013Tweet
by David O’Brian (email@example.com)
Binghamton Sports Information Office
It was September 7 and the Binghamton men’s cross country team was five minutes away from the start of the America East Pre-Conference meet. It was an event that took place on the Bearcats home course. After completing their last round of striders from the starting line, the team huddled up for its final talk. At that moment, fifth-year senior and team captain Vasili Papastrat gave the team its instructions. While he didn’t raise his voice much, Papastrat had the rest of the team’s attention.
Rewind to four years earlier. Papastrat’s first collegiate race was also run on the Bearcats’ home course. He placed 10th on the team and 28th overall in the 2009 Binghamton Invitational. That year, the Bearcats were a veteran group that went on to win the America East title. For Papastrat, however, that season was a growing year as he didn’t make the final travel squad for the conference meet.
This fall, however, Papastrat is not just part of the cross country team but leading it. He is a two-time, all-conference honoree and is poised to lead another veteran squad back to the upper echelon of the America East.
Some student-athletes become standouts in college immediately. Others blossom into standouts through hard work and dedication. Without question, Papastrat fits the second category and the respect he has earned throughout the program reflects such.
Staying Close to Home
Papastrat earned all-state honors twice during a standout career at nearby Binghamton High School. Following graduation in 2009, he chose to come to Binghamton because of its emerging distance program and its proximity to his home.
“I came to Binghamton for a number of reasons,” he said. “One, I did not want to really go away for college. Two, a few Section IV stand-outs such as Chris Gaube and Erik van Ingen were there and doing very well, so I already was familiar and comfortable with some of the team and knew I could improve as a runner there. Lastly, I just felt comfortable with (head) coach Annette Acuff and the rest of the school in general. She had high goals for me from the start but was not overly intimidating, and I’ve always liked campus and loved the value.”
Having struggled with injuries for much of his freshman cross country season, Papastrat was only able to watch as the Bearcats won the 2009 title. He and the rest of the non-travel guys, however, made the six-hour trip up to Vermont to cheer their teammates on to the victory. As difficult as the season was, Papastrat credits it as the foundation to his current success.
“I learned so much from the guys on that team,” he said. “I could never try to quantify it. Coming out of high school as a standout you tend to think you know it all, but those guys definitely showed me otherwise.”
Perhaps the biggest thing Papastrat learned from the 2009 team was taking care of himself both on and off the course.
“I came into college with a nagging hamstring injury, but following their routines helped me remedy that pretty quickly,” he said. “Simply put, those guys showed me that hard work pays off, but also that the little things matter. They set great examples by stretching and icing regularly and performing consistently in races. The team winning that year was amazing and just inspired me to be at that level or greater by the time I leave college.”
In his sophomore season, Papastrat was the most improved runner on the squad. He made the travel squad and finished 18th overall at the America East Championships. The Bearcats, however, settled for a runner-up team finish after being upset by Boston University. While most of the team had a sub-par day at the conference meet, Papstrat’s improvement was noticed by the veterans.
Gaube was a co-captain of the 2009 and 2010 teams. After a year of guiding younger teammates such as Papastrat, he got to see firsthand just how much Papastrat improved in one year.
“Vasili really stepped up his sophomore year,” Gaube said. “He was very coachable and always learned from what others on the team were doing. We didn’t have a good day at the 2010 meet but his performance was definitely a plus.”
While Papastrat improved during the cross country season, the same could not be said for his track career. Through his first two years, he had yet to score a point at the conference meet.
“It was tough,” he said. “Coach Acuff wanted me to be on the distance medley relay my freshman year but I just was not performing well enough to do that. I was doing great in cross country but had very underwhelming track seasons my first two years of college.”
One person who still saw track potential in Papastrat at this point was Acuff. Although he was a middle distance runner in high school, Acuff had observed his cross country improvement and thought he could move up to the 5,000 and 10,000 in track.
“We really took notice of Vasili’s success in cross country his sophomore year,” she said. “After getting to know Vasili better as an athlete and person it became obvious that his opportunity for the most success was with the 5,000 and 10,000. He responded better to the workouts and seemed to enjoy them much better as well.”
“The biggest adjustment in moving up to the 5,000 and 10,000 was mentally preparing myself for the longer races,” Papastrat said. “Miles can be over before you know it, but that just doesn’t happen in a 10,000. It’s grueling but I’ve learned to love it at the same time.”
While Papastrat’s events changed during the track & field season, much more of a transition took place heading into his junior cross country season in 2011. Almost all of the standouts from the 2009 and 2010 teams had finished their eligibility. Jeff Martinez, who had earned all-conference honors throughout his first two years at Binghamton, decided to redshirt. That left Papastrat as far and away the best returnee heading into the 2011 cross country season.
“That season was a huge change,” he said. “With Jeff redshirting, I was the only returning runner from our top eight. I knew it was my turn to lead the team and that’s what I needed to start to get to the next level. I could not simply count on the older guys to get the job done anymore. Plus we had a very large, very talented incoming freshman class that needed leadership so I tried to fill that void as best I could. I definitely view that as the turning point in my collegiate running career.”
“He began to take charge,” current teammate Jason Santos said. “He started setting up team distance runs on days where we didn’t have scheduled practice and getting the younger guys to stop fooling around before workouts. You could tell he wanted to succeed, not just for himself, but to show the incoming freshman how much it means to be a winning team.”
“He was no longer content simply being a part of the team,” Martinez said. “He wanted to do something special for it.”
That something special for Papastrat took place on Oct. 30, 2011. For the first time in his career, Papstrat earned all-conference honors with a team-best, ninth-place finish at the America East meet. Many of his former teammates, as well as Martinez, were on hand to see his breakthrough performance.
If Papastrat was motivated heading into that meet, however, he was even more so following it.
“After Vasili finished ninth at the 2011 America East meet, I think he realized that he had the potential to be one of the top distance runners in the conference,” Acuff said. “He then started to create a better overall vision for himself for the rest of his collegiate career. He has made some nice adjustments with his training style and has been able to increase his training volume and intensity consistently throughout his career.”
Papastrat scored points at both the America East Indoor and Outdoor Track Championships during his junior season. After redshirting during the 2012 cross country season, Papastrat earned all-conference honors in track with a third-place finish in the 5,000 at the conference indoor meet this past February.
Beyond the improvement in his performances, Papastrat’s dedication has most impressed his teammates.
“I haven’t seen someone so dedicated on the daily level,” Santos said. “Vasili really does do all the little things right and it’s added up over time. His body is his temple and the years of getting the right amount of sleep, nutrition and rehabbing have finally accumulated and turned him into an absolute monster on the track and cross country course. We make fun of him because from the outside, it looks like he makes no room for fun in his life but to him, doing all those things and optimizing his body IS the fun part.”
One Final Push
Having redshirted this past spring, Papastrat has one final cross country and outdoor track season left. He, Santos and Martinez will all be vying to lead the Bearcats back to the top of the America East when the conference cross country meet is hosted on campus Nov. 2.
“The team has been looking forward to this season for over two years now,” Papastrat said. “We have a very strong junior class and Jeff, Santos and I are finally all racing cross country during the same season, which has not happened since our sophomore year. It’s going to mean so much for me toeing the line with Jeff and Santos. I wouldn’t want any other two guys there beside me.”
“We’ve both talked about how long it’s been since we’ve run together on multiple occasions,” Martinez said. “Looking ahead, the team this fall—regardless of outcome—will be the most fun and memorable for me.”
While Papastrat is fully looking ahead to the fall, he can also look back on how he has grown during college, both as a runner and person.
“I’ve really developed as a runner, physically and mentally,” he said. “I now understand much better how training works; why we run the workouts we run, how big of a threat not taking care of yourself and getting injured is and why I run. I’ve matured a lot since freshman year and with that I’ve opened up to my teammates, making lifetime friendships and learning to race for somebody other than myself.”
Besides Santos and Martinez, the one person who has made the most last impact on Papastrat is Acuff.
“I’ve always placed complete faith in my coaches throughout my running career and she has not let me down,” he said. “I’ve become a better runner than I ever would have though just coming in from high school and I owe that all to her.”
As for Acuff, while she still has a year to coach Papastrat, she can look back at his development with both pride and joy.
“I’m really excited for Vasili’s final year and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes,” she said. “Most importantly though I think I’ve truly enjoyed watching him challenge himself as an athlete and as a leader to get better. I could not be more proud of him.”