When you’re a competitive runner on a team, progress can be measured in several different ways. You can strive for a personal record, or a season record, or a higher team finish.
But for the upperclassmen on the East Carolina cross country team, the program’s growth can be tracked with an even longer view — and things are heading in the right direction.
As his team traveled to Memphis Wednesday for the American Athletic Conference Championship Meet, junior Josh Spare, a member of head coach Josey Weaver’s first recruiting class, reflected on the changes in elevation for the Pirate program since he arrived in Greenville in 2016.
“It’s completely a night-and-day difference,” said Spare, who has consistently been the top ECU finisher on the men’s side this season. “Where we’ve come over the course of those three years, that’s really attributed to the vets we’ve had as well as the hard work of (Head Coach Curt) Kraft and Coach Weaver. In a few years, we’re really going to shock some people. We’re aiming to be at the top of the conference every single year.”
Weaver remembers when the team was satisfied with an eighth place conference finish, but their perspective has shifted with faster times, more team success against tough opponents and a nose-to-the-grindstone approach to practice that characterizes the runners as what Spare calls “a bunch of blue collar workers.”
These numbers don’t lie: Every runner on both the men’s and women’s squads has run either a lifetime or season PR this fall, Weaver said.
They opened the season by finishing second (women) and third (men) out of nine teams at the Covered Bridge Open in Boone. Other highlights include the women’s championship at the Navy Invitational and dual third place finishes (out of 18 teams) at the Pirate Invitational at Lake Kristi two weeks ago.
“I feel like we’ve gotten better each and every meet this year,” Weaver said. “When our women were able to pull off the win, I think that was probably the moment when they saw how good of a team we could become.”
The Pirates are young, and several key contributors have struggled with injuries this season, but the team chemistry and willingness to grind through adversity has made them tougher and closer as a group, Weaver said.
“You can’t get lucky in our sport and run well,” he said. “A lot of the work that they put in is behind the scenes.”
The teams have only faced an American Athletic Conference team once this season; Connecticut competed at the Paul Short Run in Pennsylvania in early October and the ECU men lost to the Huskies and the women beat them.
The Pirates will see their other conference rivals for the first time in Memphis, but Weaver is convinced that they are ready to compete for championships, even against top opponents like Wichita State, the defending conference champions on the women’s side, and Tulsa, ranked No. 6 in the nation for the men.
Nuria Tillo-Prats, a senior from Catalunya, Spain who ran the sixth best 6K time (21:08) at the ultra-competitive Paul Short Run, said that the team’s culture of winning and confidence is at a high at this point in the season. She said that every time a runner achieves a PR or a top-ten all time ECU mark it provides a “boost of motivation to keep training.”
As she prepares to compete on Friday, Tillo-Prats will keep her eyes out for the one Connecticut runner who finished ahead of her in Pennsylvania, with a concerted goal of outpacing her this time around.
“I just know one girl from that team beat me,” Tillo-Prats said. “I’m motivated about that. That’s my goal. I’ll have her in sight.”