Anyone who characterizes cross country as an individual sport has never met the 2017 East Carolina squads.
Bakri Abushouk had finished four years of school and three seasons of cross country at N.C. State, and he thought he was finished with his career as a student-athlete. But his mother and his younger brother Dean urged him to consider coming to ECU for his final year of eligibility. He made the move with one chief goal – to help motivate his brother to excel.
Grace Sullivan just became the first Pirate since 2008 to win the conference cross country athlete of the week award, and she knows that coach Josey Weaver considers her a leader, she said. But she has seen every runner on the team step up as a leader at some point – by persevering to collect team points even on a bad day.
“In everyone’s head, in races, when you’re feeling tired, you’re thinking, ‘I have to do this for the team, I want to finish for the team,’” said Sullivan, a junior from Charlotte. “They don’t want to disappoint.”
In this spirit, with Bakri and Grace leading the way, the ECU cross country program is scaling new heights.
The men’s team this week earned its first-ever regional ranking from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, earning the No. 14 spot in the highly competitive Southeast Region, one spot ahead of North Carolina and just below Wake Forest.
When the program hosted 11 teams at the Pirate Invitational last weekend, Abushouk and Sullivan swept the individual titles, with Abushouk running the men’s 8K in 24:00 and Sullivan finishing the women’s 5K in 20:37, tying her personal record set earlier this season at the Paul Short Run at Lehigh University.
Also at the Paul Short Run, Abushouk tied the ECU program record for the 8K, finishing in 23:53.
“He is a natural born leader, from his work ethic to his dedication to the sport to how he approaches every day,” Weaver said of Bakri Abushouk. “It’s contagious.”
Abushouk’s original aim in spending a year at ECU was centered on his younger brother Dean. His example – and the natural competitiveness between brothers – has indeed made a difference in Dean’s running. He finished third overall in the Pirate Invitational with a time of 24:34.
But Bakri quickly realized that it wasn’t just about his brother; he has found joy in helping motivate all of the athletes on his new team.
“This team is outstanding,” he said. “The goal wasn’t to come here for individual success. It was meant for my brother and for this team as well. Everyone is giving their best.”
The comparison of a sports team and a family is a bit of a cliché, but in the case of the Pirate men’s cross country team it’s a concept grounded in reality. Bakri and Dean Abushouk are only one set of brothers on the team; twins Andrew and Nick Ciaccia also compete alongside each other for ECU.
The regional ranking has certainly provided a boost to the men’s team, Weaver said, but they have been careful not to focus on their own press clippings. Instead, they are locked in on the next challenge – the American Athletic Conference Championships in Philadelphia.
The American is a competitive conference for cross country, and in preparation Weaver brought his team up to Philly earlier this season to become familiar with the course. It’s far hillier than any route they have run in Eastern North Carolina, but Weaver and his athletes are unified in their belief that they have more milestones to collect this season.
“I can see the guys, they’re running for each other,” Weaver said. “And it’s fun to sit back and coach that, because sometimes I just need to get out of their way.”