Sept. 26, 2002
By Josh Griffin
The Santa Clara
The Santa Clara cross country program operates with little recognition on the Mission Campus. After finishing the 2001 season second in the West Coast Conference Championships, the men's cross country squad has great expectations for the 2002 campaign.
Much of the optimism springs from the return of two fifth-year seniors - Thomas Chapman and Mike Helms. After choosing not to compete in cross country as a freshman at Santa Clara, Chapman returned with the dedication to training that allowed him to become the team's top runner last season.
"In high school, I was the ignorant kid. My coach was lax, let us show up whenever, and as a result, I did not take training too seriously," says Chapman. "Not running my freshman year gave me time to determine if I wanted to get serious about training."
Much to the jubilation of the Santa Clara athletic department, Chapman chose to become serious about his running, and he has dropped time in his first three years at an impressive rate. After finishing 26th and 12th in his freshman and sophomore years, respectively, at the WCC Championships, Chapman was the first Bronco, as well as the first non-Portland Pilot, to finish the meet last year, coming in sixth overall.
A second fifth-year senior, Helms, returns after red-shirting his senior academic year, which he took in spite of his prowess as a runner in order to have an extra year to develop as a runner and team up with Chapman. Considering Chapman's sixth place finish in the 2001 WCC Championships and Helms' fifth place finish in the 2000 WCC Championships, this duo is expected to be as talented as any in the conference.
Last weekend in the Aggie Invitational at UC Davis, Chapman and Helms demonstrated the results of their hard work and the development of Chapman as a top-notch runner. The duo finished the meet third and fourth among collegians in the 8,000 meter race, with Chapman narrowly edging Helms by seven tenths of one second. Both set new Santa Clara records for the 8,000 meter course, with times of 25:27.20 and 25:27.90 respectively.
"Thomas and I are the front-runners," said Helms. "We feed off each other, as we train together everyday."
By coordinating to spend their fifth years together, Chapman and Helms set out with several purposes.
"[Former Santa Clara runner] Charlie Brenaman was really the first to come back for a fifth year, and that showed me what I had to look forward to," said Chapman.
In cross country, there is a high likelihood of improvement with proper training, which is not always such a guarantee in other sports.
"We coordinated our fifth year to all be a year better. It is a progression, where we build upon everything every year with continued training," said Helms. "It takes years to build up to the college level of training, and Thomas and I have the advantage of a fifth year."
The main reason for their returns, however, appears to be to improve the potential of the team, which figures to be the best in Bronco cross country history. Falling into the third and fourth spots are juniors Ben Gauen and Ricky Brackett. The final three spots for championship competition could be filled by any number of younger runners.
"We have five or six guys that are shooting for the fifth, sixth, and seventh spots on the team," said Helms. "We have great depth. That raises the bar of competition, and pushes the guys to step up to compete in the championship meets."
As they look towards the Stanford Invitational this weekend, as well as the WCC Championships and the NCAA Regional Championships, the team's expectations are as lofty as ever. Winning the WCC is in the forefront, but will require the team to unseat the 23-time defending champions at Portland University. However, this is the main reason Chapman and Helms are back, and their leadership is rubbing off on the rest of the team.
"The biggest thing is that they set the bar and lead by example," says Gauen.
Brackett seconds Gauen's sentiments: "I feel like I owe it to them to try my hardest all the time. Even if I am slipping, I feel compelled to give it my all."
If everything falls into place, the dynamic duo of fifth-year seniors will see the hopes of the program realized.
"Our goal is to knock [Portland] off," says Chapman. "It would be the ultimate way to go out, and would set a precedent for the future of the team. Once that happens, anything is possible for Santa Clara."
Maybe even a little notoriety.