November 25, 2003
TUFTS MEN'S CROSS COUNTRY EARNS "TRIPLE CROWN"
by Paul Sweeney
Borrowing a page from the world of horse racing, the month of November unfolded well for the Tufts University men's cross-country team under Head Coach Connie Putnam when it won the "Triple Crown" with championship victories at the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), and the NCAA New England Region meets on consecutive Saturdays.
Like horse racing, cross-country isn't often thought of as a team sport. On the surface, harriers compete individually against the clock, the course, and the opponent. While technically this may be true, the 2003 Tufts squad proved that winning their trio of championship races was a total team effort.
"The three championships together were so important because winning them as a series was an effort everyone could get into," said co-captain Peter Bromka. "It's something we started talking about last May, emphasized to the freshmen in September, and finally brought together in November."
The team started the run by winning their first NESCAC title at Middlebury College on November 1. The Jumbos reached an important turning point by defeating arch-rival Williams College, an eight-time NESCAC champion. Freshman Joshua Kennedy led Tufts with a seventh-place finish to earn conference Rookie of the Year honors.
While the varsity rested on November 8, the second varsity captured the ECAC crown on Tufts' home course in Grafton. Bromka knew the team had a strong identity after the ECAC championship when the second seven runners received their trophy. Two freshmen who had scored at the meet turned to the varsity and said, "We did our part, now don't mess this up!"
They didn't. The varsity seven won Tufts' first New England regional title in Cumberland, Maine, on November 15. With four runners placing in the top 20, including runner-up Nate Brigham, the Jumbos won the race in dominating fashion over rivals Keene State and Williams. The team's year-long strategy paid off nicely.
"There is a lot of strategy and race planning that spectators don't often see," Brigham said. "This season we worked heavily on pack running and communication. During our races you almost always saw two or three Tufts guys together, because that's our strategy. Strength in numbers. It is much more demoralizing to be passed by two of the same jersey than by one."
By winning the regional championship, Tufts earned a berth in the NCAA Division III National Championship Race in Hanover, Indiana, on November 22. It was the sixth time the Jumbos qualified as a team for the national championship race, and the tenth straight year that either the team or an individual represented Tufts in the race.
Ultimately, the Jumbos did not achieve all of their goals. Inspired by their success in recent weeks, they were eager to improve upon the 1996 team's Tufts-best seventh-place finish at Nationals. They placed 11th.
"Nationals is always a tough race because it is so unforgiving," junior Brian McNamara said. "If you start to slow down a little, or lose concentration, there are always guys ready to pass you. We were just a little bit off, but were able to run through it, and still be 11th in the country."
When finishing 11th in the country can be considered a mild disappointment, that's surely a sign of a team headed for the top. The program's amazing depth is taking it there. Fourteen different runners finished among the top five for Tufts during 11 varsity races this fall.
"Most teams have a set seven or at least five who are expected to carry the team the entire season," remarked sophomore Matt Fortin. "With our team you never knew who was going to have a big race and really help out the team. I couldn't imagine having to narrow the team down to seven."
That was Putnam's responsibility. He did that and the other requirements of his position so well that he was named NESCAC and New England Coach of the Year. His "Triple Crown" championship program can savor 2003 for now, but soon must turn its focus toward a better showing at the national championship race. Eleven of the 14 runners who scored points for the Jumbos this season are due back next year. This is a group that's already proven it can come together to win championships.
"This season was a high point in our progress towards accomplishing a long-term plan," said Putnam, now in his 20th year at Tufts. "Winning the championships in a row was a major step that was the culmination of many small steps. It showed the kids what they can accomplish."