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On the Rise

By David O'Brian
Binghamton Sports Information Office
dobrian@binghamton.edu

Synopsis: Since 2005, few Binghamton athletic programs have improved as much as men's cross country. In the past four years, it has gone from being a struggling program to a legitimate conference contender.

On October 29, 2005, Binghamton University hosted the America East Cross Country Championships. At the time, the athletic department was in its fifth year of competing in the conference. For the Binghamton men's team, it was a day of great disappointment. With just two runners finishing among the top 40, the Bearcats finished a program-worst eighth place (out of nine competing teams). In four previous trips to the America East meet, the Binghamton men finished sixth in 2002 and seventh the other three times. Although their top runners in 2005 were mostly freshmen, the Bearcats had hoped to fare much better since the meet was on their home course.

In 2008, the America East Cross Country Championships also marked a disappointing day for the Binghamton men's squad. Compared to 2005, however, the contrast was stark. The Bearcats finished a program-best third place. By their own admission, however, several runners had subpar races. Three years earlier, the men would have been thrilled with a third-place finish. Now, despite reaching the upper echelon of the America East, the team was far from satisfied.

Since Binghamton University joined the America East Conference in 2001, its fall sports programs have experienced a great deal of success. The men's soccer team has made six consecutive appearances in the America East title game. The women's soccer and volleyball squads have each made the conference tournament five straight years. All three programs have won at least one conference title. The women's cross country team, meanwhile, has had five all-conference and two all-region selections as well as the 2006 ECAC individual champion. What has recently changed among Binghamton's fall sports programs, however, is the status of men's cross country. Once an afterthought, it has turned into a top America East squad.

Beginnings

Annette Acuff was named the head men's and women's cross country coach at Binghamton in August 2000. She would also serve as the assistant track coach in charge of leading the distance runners. At the time of Acuff's arrival, Binghamton was still a year away from moving up to the NCAA Division I level. It would also be another eight months before the university joined the America East Conference.

"I saw Binghamton as a great academic school and a great training environment," Acuff said. "New York is such a competitive state with distance running. As a New York state school and a top academic school, this is a great place to recruit and coach distance runners."

Acuff was an accomplished distance runner at Oklahoma University, from where she graduated in 1995. From 1997-99, she had an impressive three-year stint as an assistant coach at Northern Colorado. It was Acuff's job to lead Binghamton's elevation to the NCAA Division I level. By 2004, the Bearcat women's cross country team was on solid ground. Getting the men's program going, however, was proving to be a lot tougher.

"It was very challenging back then," Acuff said. "What we needed the most on the men's team was some great leadership. That was the number one thing we were missing. We needed highly motivated and competitive guys who wanted to help build the program."

In cross country, each team is allowed nine runners to compete in the America East Championship. At the NCAA Northeast Regional meet, that number is reduced to seven. The top five runners on a team score points in a meet, depending on what place they finish. The more runners a program has, the more competition there is for each of them to be selected to run in a championship race and the better that team becomes. In 2004, however, the Binghamton men's cross country team had only seven runners on its active roster.

The following year, Acuff brought in freshman Adam Hill. As a senior at Bethlehem High School (located in Delmar, N.Y.), he placed 21st at the prestigious New York State Federation Meet.

"Adam brought an initial competitive drive to our team," Acuff said. "He wanted to be a part of a successful program. I could definitely sense right away that he was going to help us."

Once he was at Binghamton, Hill gained an appreciation for Acuff's coaching pedigree. An avid reader of ways to train, he knew immediately that his new coach was on top of her sport.

"I read a lot about running back in high school as far as how to train," Hill said. "What Coach Acuff does goes right along with what I have read. She has a very good knowledge of distance running."

Hill was the team MVP in 2005 but the season was adjustment for both him and the program. The Bearcats' poor showing at the conference meet served as a sobering measure as to the state of the program.

"It was a disappointing meet," Hill said. "For me as a freshman though, it gave me the motivation to keep getting better each year. It was different for me than it was for many of the older runners. The upperclassmen only had a few more meets or another year."

"A Different Perspective"

In 2006, Chris Gaube, Craig Coon, Jonathan Peffley and Jack Carroll joined the Binghamton program. Gaube, Coon and Carroll became mainstays in the top five as freshmen. Peffley, meanwhile, would become one of the squad's most improved runners by his junior season and crack the top five several times.

For Gaube, who was the team MVP in 2006, coming to Binghamton presented him with the challenge of helping to build a program from scratch. A cross country and track standout at nearby Vestal High School, he had little doubt as to the long-term potential of the Bearcats' program.

"I saw a program with a lot of potential but one that needed a slight culture change as well as a different perspective," Gaube said. "There wasn't a strong drive to be great. It was a settling for mediocrity type of thing. I've played sports my whole life and that has never been the culture I have been used to. When I came in, I did things the way I have always done them."

"What Chris added the most to the team was his leadership," Acuff said. "The program lacked a great leader. Chris really wanted to help build a good team and wanted everyone on the team to achieve their full potential."

Once Gaube arrived on campus, he noticed that Hill had the same attitude as he did. The two became training partners and were driven by the vision of a brighter future for the Binghamton program.

"Adam is one of the most competitive people there is," Gaube said. "Obviously, not just in running, but also in his academics and research. We did not have a lot in common outside of running but when we both got on the track or the (cross country) course, we both were very competitive and wanted to be the best."

The Bearcats had high hopes for the 2006 America East Championships. In the end, however, Binghamton placed eighth for the second year in a row. The culture and attitude was starting to improve but the results had yet to fall into place.

"It was eye opening," Gaube said. "Even though we had come so far in a year, we were still no where close to where we wanted to be. That really motivated us as a team to be that much better. Even if there were some small good things that came out of that meet, it was just not satisfying to be in eighth place. I just looked at it and said to myself that we are not going to be here anymore."

Moving Forward

During the ensuing indoor track season, significant results started to come for the men's distance program. At the America East Championships, Hill and Gaube placed fourth and sixth respectively in the 3,000 run. Until that meet, it had been several years since a Binghamton men's distance runner placed so high at the conference track championships. That meet, however, marked a significant turning point.

"I had just made the fast heat of the 3,000 and decided that I had nothing to lose," Hill said. "I was amazed at how far up I was. What I really remember about that race is how much the coaches were getting into the race because the team hadn't had distance runners up that far in a long time."

In the fall of 2007, another solid group of freshmen joined the cross country program. Andrew Ugolino would be the team MVP. Casey Quaglia, Gerald McDonald and Adam Quinn all were in the top five for most of the season. Chris Raulli and Dean Colvin also appeared in the top seven during the year. At the America East meet, the Bearcats improved to sixth place. At the season-ending IC4A Championships, Binghamton finished a program-best third out of 25 squads.

For Hill and Gaube, however, 2007 was a mixed blessing. Both were sidelined for the season with injuries and wound up redshirting. As much as they wanted to be competing, both of them were excited by what the newcomers had to offer.

"In the beginning of the season, Adam and I were training with the new guys and we got a glimpse of what they were capable of," Gaube said. "They were guys who worked hard, were driven to succeed and wanted to do great things. We were all on the same page. Even though I wasn't able to run that year, it was exciting to see all the new guys run."

"It was frustrating having to redshirt Chris and Adam that year but we had a very good recruiting class," Acuff said. "I knew we'd struggle some without two of our best runners but we had a lot of young talent. I was more focused on the long term future of the program that year than I was about the injuries we were struggling with."

If Hill and Gaube weren't able to push each other on the course, they were definitely able to during their rehab sessions in the training room.

"We would both be riding the arm bikes in the training room and wanted to see which one of us could go the longest without stopping," Hill said. "I think we both got up to over two hours before we decided it was time to quit."

"Being competitive back and forth with Adam (on the arm bikes) got the competitive juices flowing," Gaube said. "You need to find a way to keep motivated even when you are set back like that. After a while, we realized it got to be outrageous."

Both Hill and Gaube returned in time for the indoor track season and played pivotal roles in Binghamton's program-best second-place finish at the America East meet. This time, however, Quaglia and Quinn joined them in the scoring column. Binghamton was also third at the conference outdoor meet as Gaube, Quinn and Ugolino all played key roles. After years of being a non-factor, the men's distance runners were now a crucial part of the track team's success.

"Several years ago we were a consistent fourth or fifth place team at the America East track and field championships with little or no points coming from the distance events," Binghamton head track & field coach Mike Thompson said. "We have moved up to (as high as) second place and the amazing turnaround of our distance program is largely responsible for this success."

By the spring of 2008, the culture change which Hill and Gaube envisioned had become a reality. Bonded by a strong work ethic and a desire to keep improving the program, the Binghamton cross country team was a solid unit.

"I was on a pretty close team in high school but this team was starting to become even closer," Hill said. "Everyone knew that whatever we did on or off the (track or course) affected the entire team. We were all on the same page."

Taking Flight

It was during the 2008 track season that the Binghamton distance program gained a vital transfer. Erik van Ingen, who was a freshman at Canisius College, came to Binghamton. His impact was immense in many ways.

"Erik added a whole new level of drive and competitiveness to our program," Acuff said. "He wanted to be at the national level. He has really been a great influence on the rest of the team."

"In all my years of athletics, I have never met a single person as consumed by his sport as Erik," Gaube said. "No one is as committed as he is. He wants to be the best. He fits in well with our team outside of practice. I can't tell you how happy I am that he is a part of our program."

Van Ingen graduated from Marathon High School in 2007 after placing 24th at the Footlocker Northeast Regional Cross Country Meet his senior year. He was a second-team all-state selection during the 2006 cross country season and was the 2007 New York State Federation track champion in the 800. At Canisius, he was the top runner on the cross country team as a freshman.

"I saw Binghamton as a program on the rise," van Ingen said. "The guys on the team were pretty welcoming and they really worked very hard. It didn't take long to adjust to being a part of the team. It was just a very natural fit."

With van Ingen on board, and with Gaube and Hill both healthy, Binghamton was poised for a breakout cross country campaign in 2008. Freshman Tyler Stachecki also joined the squad, giving the Bearcats 17 runners on their roster-more than double what they had four years earlier. For most of the season, Binghamton was ranked in the NCAA Northeast Region Top 15 Poll.

At the America East Meet, Gaube and van Ingen finished third and fourth respectively. Quinn was 13th. The rest of the squad, however, failed to finish in the top 30. Despite the third-place team finish, the meet was a bitter pill to swallow. It also served as an important lesson for the team.

"We realized that we can't do our best with only half the team running well," Hill said. "We learned that everybody matters and all of us need to have a great performance for the team to do its best."

For van Ingen in particular, the end of the cross country season was especially painful. He had been the Bearcats' top runner for most of the season and was aiming to win the individual title at the America East Championships. Two weeks later, he dropped out of the NCAA Northeast Regional Meet. Even though Binghamton finished a program-best 15th (out of 33 teams) in that race, van Ingen was left with an empty feeling.

"The end of the cross country season was heartbreaking," van Ingen said. "I over trained and because of that, the conference and regional meets did not go well. I learned that there is more to being successful than always running hard. You have to give your body and mind time to rest. That was very tough for me to learn."

Like Hill and Gaube before him, van Ingen followed the cross country disappointment with a stellar track campaign. During the indoor season, he ran a 4:01 mile and nearly advanced to the NCAA Championships. During the outdoor season, he won the America East title in the 1,500 and was eighth at the NCAA Regional meet. In the process, he qualified for the U.S. Outdoor National Meet (which was held in Oregon June 25).

van Ingen credits much of his improvement to Acuff, who spent a great deal of time with him during the track season. When he was on the verge of qualifying for the NCAA Indoor Championships, Acuff drove van Ingen eight hours each way for a prestigious invitational at Notre Dame in an effort to lower his top time. She also flew out to Oregon and coached him at the U.S. National Meet.

"The biggest thing Coach Acuff has taught me is to relax," van Ingen said. "I used to be very high strung as an athlete but she has helped to relax in my running form and pace as well as the way I think about running. She has impacted me a lot."

Van Ingen wasn't the only distance runner who stood out during the 2009 track season. Gaube also captured his first America East individual title, winning the 5,000 at the indoor meet.

"It's emotional to win a conference race," Gaube said. "I would much rather win a team title more than anything. Still, ever since I came to Binghamton, winning an America East race has been one of my goals. It was a weight off my shoulders to know that I had finally done it."

Just two years earlier, it was a big deal for a Bearcat distance runner to place well at the America East Men's Track Championships. Now, Binghamton had two individual champions in the same year.

Present and Future Success

At the start of July, the Binghamton men's cross country squad was in full preparation for the 2009 season. Gaube, whose family lives a few miles from campus, continued to train locally. Hill trained at Dartmouth College, where he was working on a research fellowship in molecular biology. After returning from Oregon, van Ingen trained in his hometown of Cortland, New York. While all three runners remain driven to keep improving the program, they can each appreciate how far things have come.

"To crack the top seven on our team now, or even the top nine, means you are already one of the better runners in the conference," Gaube said. "When I got here, we had only 10-11 runners so pretty much everyone was in the top nine. Even the guys who won't make the top seven or nine this year are people we need to accomplish great things. Everyone is so important to this team."

What will make the competition to crack the top seven much more fierce this year is the Bearcats' most prolific group of incoming freshmen. Jeff Martinez won the overall New York State outdoor track title in the 3,200 last spring, clocking a Section 4 record time of 8:57. Jason Santos joined Martinez as a second-team all-state selection during the cross country season. Evan Bloomberg ran a time of 9:15 in the 3,200 at the state outdoor track meet while Brendan Connell (fifth team) and Vasili Papastrat (sixth team) earned all-state honors during the 2008 cross country season. Anthony Gaetani, who ran locally at Binghamton, rounds out this year's newcomers.

"I think this is the class that might send us to the next level," Gaube said. "They are fortunate to come in and have a lot of upperclassmen who have had success and know what it takes and can mentor them. That might have been something that our group lacked in the past so it is very exciting to see now."

"We are a lot deeper of a team this year in part because of the incoming freshmen class," van Ingen said. "They are going to make a big impact. Our 8-10 runners have also improved and give us great depth."

While the Bearcats have been driven to succeed on the course, the same is true in the classroom. Ten of the 17 runners on the roster last season made the America East Academic Honor Roll. As of May 2009, Gaube, Hill, Coon, Ugolino, Quinn and Colvin are all in the National College Athlete Honors Society.

"They all know they are here first and foremost because of their academics," Acuff said. "They are very driven in all that they do and want to do just as well in school as they do in running."

The respect the men's cross country team has been getting from other programs on campus is evident. It is a far cry from just a few years ago.

"I have been fortunate enough to make pretty good friends with most of the other teams on campus," Gaube said. "People have come to notice us and know what we have done. People I know are excited to see our results, cheering us on and wishing us luck. A few years ago, people did not know who we are. Now they really respect us."

"I had one of the men's soccer players come up to me last year during our season," Hill said. "He told me how great it was to see how far our team has come the past few years. That was really great to hear."

Recognition and respect should continue to come for the men's cross country team this season and in the years to come. With 19 runners now on the roster, the Bearcats have both the depth and talent to be a significant player in the America East.

"The combination of Coach Acuff's diligent training plan and the relentless determination of the current crop of BU distance runners has helped them improve from being at the bottom of the conference to a yearly contender," Thompson said. "It is an absolute joy to watch these guys compete every week."

The team itself, however, credits their head coach as the person most responsible for their success.

"Coach Acuff built a program from the ground up and now we are a team to be reckoned with," Gaube said. "A lot of it has been a testament to what she has prescribed for us. We have believed in her, respected her and listened to her. None of us would have accomplished close to what we have without her."

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