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The Best of Both Worlds

Men's cross country co-captain Craig Coon has led a championship team and been inducted into the National College Athlete Honor

September 8, 2010

The Best of Both Worlds

On April 24, 2008, Craig Coon was called up to the front of the TAU Bearcat Club Room in the Events Center. He was one of 35 Binghamton student-athletes who were being inducted into the National College Athlete Honor Society. Although he was only a sophomore, Coon’s academic excellence had already placed him in an elite group. Like all of the other inductees who were called up to the front of the room to receive their awards, that night marked a signature moment in Coon’s academic career.

Fast forward to October 31, 2009 at the America East Cross Country Championships. The Binghamton men’s team, which Coon co-captained, won its first-ever conference championship. At the awards ceremony following the race, Coon was once again called up to the front of the crowd. Along with fellow co-captain Chris Gaube, Coon has the honor of accepting the team championship trophy. Without question, it was one of the greatest moments of Coon’s athletic career at Binghamton.

One student-athlete. 18 months. A pair of moments that signify the ultimate accomplishments in both athletics and academics. For Craig Coon, his career at Binghamton has been the realization of hard work being well rewarded.

Coming to Binghamton

Coon starred at Penfield High School, from where he graduated in 2006. As a senior, he was 27th in the New York State Federation Cross Country Meet. When it came to choosing a college, however, Coon was already looking past his athletic career.

“I knew that running was not going to become a career option for me so academics were my number one priority,” he said. “I was looking for schools with strong academics, especially with regards to engineering. Running was also very important to me. I wanted to be able to grow as an athlete, I knew that I wanted a challenge and Division I athletics would be the challenge I was looking for. Binghamton fit what I wanted most in school—quality academics with a Division I athletic program.”

When Coon arrived at Binghamton, he found a men’s cross country program that was nothing like the championship squad it would become. In its first five years at the NCAA Division I level, the Bearcats had finished no higher than sixth at the America East Championships. The year before Coon arrived, Binghamton sank to a program-worst eighth place at the meet.

“The atmosphere was much different than it is today,” he said. ” The focus as a team was not as uniform. We were not very competitive in the Conference at the time and no one seemed to be too bothered by this. I can still remember the workouts that first year however and dreaming of winning it all and making it to Nationals. With friends at other schools as well as an older sister who went to Division III nationals for cross country, I wanted to match that.”

While Coon could only dream of eventually winning a title, his success in the classroom came right away. As he puts it, Coon wasted no time developing a strategy for success and has stuck to it even since.

“I try to start working on my classes early in the semester so I understand fully the core concepts of the subject when the material and athletic schedule gets busier towards the end of the semester,” he said. “I also tried to never make excuses. I feel that there is no reason that I or any student-athlete should be treated differently in the classroom. As a student-athlete, class should come first and always has for me at Binghamton.”

Coon’s strategy for success did not go unnoticed by his professors. Dr. James M. Pitarresi is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He remembers Coon as someone who stood out both as a student-athlete and as a person.

“Craig was a great student to have in my class,” he said. “He was friendly, respectful, hardworking and smart. He always seems to have a quick smile and laugh. His time management skills were excellent. Juggling the demands of the mechanical engineering curriculum with Division I sports is a big challenge and Craig demonstrated that achieving excellence both in the classroom and in the field is possible.”

On the Rise

Coon was the third runner on the cross country team as a freshman. During the outdoor track season, he was seventh overall in the 10,000 at the America East Championships. Along with Gaube, he was a part of a freshman class that was starting to transform the Binghamton distance program. By the time Coon was a sophomore, Binghamton has brought in several other runners with the same mindset as him.

As the Bearcats began to improve on the cross country course, Coon was already earning accolades for his work in the classroom. His induction into the National College Athlete Honor Society was the most well-known of his accomplishments but it was far from the only one. He also became a member of Tau Beta Pi (the National Engineering Honor Society) and Pi Tau Sigma (the Mechanical Engineering Honor Society).

“Being inducted into the National College Honor Society was a special honor for me,” he said. “It felt good to be recognized for all the hard work I had put in the classroom as well as with running. I am proud of getting into both of the engineering honor societies as well.”

After settling for eighth place again Coon’s freshman year, the men’s cross country team climbed to sixth in 2007 and a program-best third the following year. For Coon, however, the 2008 cross country season was bittersweet. He developed a stress fracture in his hip and missed all of the season. He was able to return the following year, however, and developed a new outlook on running.

“When I finally came back to running I made a promise to myself to enjoy some part of every run,” he said. “It was only after sustaining such a long injury that I came to realize how important running was to me. I never realized until I was out how truly lucky I was to be able to run so much pain free.”

Like most people on the men’s cross country team, Coon credits head coach Annette Acuff with helping him recover from the injury and becoming a smarter runner.

“Coach Acuff has helped refine my approach to running,” he said. “I have always had the philosophy that the harder you work the better you will get. While this is true, when taken too far it can be detrimental to your health. She has really helped me to realize this and to maximize my fitness and work ethic. Together we have found a way to overcome barriers that I have come across, while avoiding making the same mistakes.”

One area that Acuff has helped Coon with is being a team leader. It was a position that initially did not come easy to him.

“Coach Acuff early on placed me in a leadership position, which was difficult at first to manage,” he said. “I think that over time, however, I have developed my leadership skills and other life skills that are important in leading a successful life.”

While Coon’s leadership skills were developing, so too were his academic and career aspirations.

“Coming into Binghamton, I was not certain what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was strong in math and science and enjoyed both so I chose to study engineering at school. At Binghamton I have been challenged by my professors and also studied a variety of mechanical engineering subjects. While I have enjoyed aspects of all of my classes I think I have begun to develop my passion for fluids and heat/mass transfer.”

A Crowning Moment

Heading into the 2009 America East Championships, Coon and the men’s cross country team were seeking to at long last fulfill their championship dreams. They expected a battle with three-time defending champion New Hampshire and Stony Brook. What they got instead, however, was an overwhelming 30-point win over the rest of the competition. With eight runners (including Coon) finishing among the top 21 in the race, the Bearcats put an exclamation point on their first-ever conference title.

“It was a truly remarkable and unforgettable feeling,” Coon said. “After three years of heartbreak to finally be able to have the weight lifted from our shoulders was amazing. It had seemed that until last year even if we thought we had a solid team we would falter at the Conference meet, but last year all the pieces fell right into place. The feeling was also spectacular because of the joy you could see on everyone’s face.”

Along with Gaube, Coon has been through the complete transformation of the men’s cross country program. The gratitude and respect he has gained from his coach and teammates is immense.

“This program would not be where it is today without the impact of Craig Coon,” Acuff said. “He has been a tremendous leader within our program both on and off the course. He represents everything our program values and is so well respected. In a lot of ways he’s certainly been like an assistant coach.”

“Craig epitomizes and embodies all the values we strive for as a program,” Gaube said. “He is a true winner in all facets of the word. I think often times he may get overlooked because their are so many talented athletes in our program, but in many ways he is the heart and soul of our team. He leads by example and is a person of high character and integrity.”

Following the cross country season, Coon was a captain on the track & field team. He got to accept the runner-up trophy at both the indoor and outdoor conference championships. His fifth-place finish in the 10,000 contributed to the Bearcats recording their highest finish ever at the America East outdoor meet.

Looking Ahead

Coon earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering last May. He chose to come back to Binghamton to study for my M.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Since he did not compete in 2008, he was able to use his redshirt option and return this fall.

With seven of its top eight runners returning from last season (Coon included), the Bearcats are favored to repeat as conference champions. Hoisting the first-place trophy again would be significant to Coon for a number of reasons.

“As a team, we have always set our goals high and we do not plan on backing down now,” he said. “We want to go back to the America East Championship and try to repeat as conference champions. As always the conference returns a strong field and we now have the targets on our back. If we could go to Boston and show that last year was not a fluke, that would be great.”

With this being his final season on the cross country squad, Coon has a special appreciation for his teammates. Not only have they united to turn the program around but they also share a common bond of academic success. Last season, a conference-best five runners were named to the America East Fall Academic Squad.

“I think everyone on the cross country team shares the view that academics are the most important,” he said. “After all, even if anyone is able to run competitively for a number of years, without an education they may have trouble after they stop running. We realize how important education is at a different point, but hopefully with the number of leaders we now have on the team the young guys coming in will see how important excelling in the classroom is.”

As for his goals after earning his master’s degree, Coon is still exploring a number of options.

“I hope to focus in thermo-fluids,” he said. ” I can not say what I wish to do after my Masters is completed. I either plan on continuing my education if I find my passion is in research or looking for an engineering job. I know that I am prepared for either path with the knowledge I have gained through school at Binghamton and from running.”

His teammates have little doubt that whatever Coon does, he will be a success at it.

“Craig demonstrates loyalty, dedication and character in everything he does,” Gaube said. “Moving forward, the sky is the limit for this guy as he pursues his professional endeavors as a mechanical engineer.”

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