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Aug. 25, 2014
JG: As the 2014 cross country season is upon us, we just finished up a wonderful week of cross country camp and we have high expectations for this season. It is a tale of two different teams, so to speak as we look forward. Our women's team is coming off of five consecutive years at the NCAA Championships and looking to continue that trend. They have also done very well at the Big Ten meet over that time period as well, finishing in the top-four all those years, with a team championship as well. The way the women run, it's exciting, as I said it is a tale of two different teams. The women are a pack group, we have a group of about six, seven, eight women and they run together throughout the race. Our goal and our objective for this year is the further up in the race they can be as a pack, the lower our team score. It was successful last year, as we were fourth at the Big Ten meet then came back and ran a great race at the Mid-Atlantic regional to finish third. Like I said, advance to the NCAA Championships for the fifth year in a row, which I believe is the longest streak in Penn State cross country history on the women's side.
On the men's side, we have what's called a low stick in Matt Fischer. He was third at the Big Ten Championships last year and advanced to the NCAAs as an individual. This year, I think we have a very good core behind him. Anytime you get a low stick that can finish in the top-five, like Matt did at the Big Ten Championships, the core behind him, the further up we can have them move and we really only need four more guys to come through on that day. I think we have a really good young class this year on the men's side and the women's side, people that can come in as freshmen and contribute right away along with a great group of leaders that are juniors and seniors. I'm excited about what this season can bring.
Q: John, you are taking over for Beth Alford-Sullivan, is that a tough task for you?
JG: Well, it's an exciting task. I don't know if I would call it a tough task, it's an exciting task. Beth and I had a close relationship for the last eight years and worked very well together. She did a lot of great things for this program in her 15 years here at Penn State. I've got big shoes to fill, but excited about that task and that opportunity. I am looking forward to helping our student-athletes have a great experience here at Penn State.
Q: What is going to be important for your team since you are going to be hosting the Mid-Atlantic Regional this fall?
JG: A couple of things will be important. One of the great things with hosting is that we get to train on that course on a regular basis. Joe Hughes and the golf staff are fantastic in terms of letting us come out there and practice on the course. Allowing us to have that opportunity is wonderful and anytime you can know the ins and outs of your course, where to make moves, where you can put a surge in and help break mentally some of the other runners is a big help. Being able to be out there to practice is important to us. Obviously, our preparation throughout the year to be ready to compete on that day to try and advance to the national championships is something we are excited about.
Q: You have two other home meets during the season, did you have spiked interest from the region as far as teams wanting to come here and run the course before?
JG: Very much so, our first meet, the Spiked Shoe meet, will be the main meet that features teams from our region. Our region is the Mid-Atlantic region, which consists of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland and West Virginia. We'll have a lot of interest in that first meet for teams to come up and get some experience on the course by learning the terrain. It will be a good meet for us.
Q: Matt and Lauren, how anxious are you guys to get started on the season?
LM: I am very excited, like Coach Gondak said we have a really good pack this year and everybody seems to be working really well together and pushing each other along. We are excited to see what we can do.
MF: Even though this is my fifth time around being here at Penn State, I am excited for some new opportunities with the program. It's almost a new generation for the team right now, compared to where I started out with the team. We, I think are poised to have a big year and it will be one to remember and it's a good way to end my career.
Q: John, you've got a couple of local State College kids on your roster are you expecting much contribution from them in their freshman season?
JG: On the men's side, it's a little bit more of a challenge to contribute as a freshman. From high school racing 5k to getting to college and racing 10k or 5.2 miles, like we do here at Penn State for our regular season meets, it takes some time and it takes some years to really develop that experience that you need and putting in the miles, so to speak, to get to prepared to race the longer distance. On the men's side, it might take a little bit of time for those individuals to really contribute to the team. We're excited about them and we think they are going to be main players as they go. Matt could attest to this, he was a state two-mile champion in high school, but it took him a couple years here to really grow and be someone that contributed to the team in the 5,000 on the track and as well as leading the cross country team. On the women's team, it is a little bit easier to come right in and contribute right away, because in high school they race 5k and in college you race either 5k or 6k. So it's a very similar environment to what they are used to, so Hannah Catalano could come in and be someone that can contribute fairly quickly. We do have a pretty talented core of seniors on the women's side, so it might be hard to break into that group. I expect her over the next few years to be a main contributor to the program.
Q: Lauren, being a part of a talented core, how much do you guys push each other to get better and how nice is that to have that relationship with the other people out there running?
LM: It's really great. I'm one of five seniors, I believe and we are all really good friends and also very competitive with each other. It's really nice to have each other to push along in workouts and also even the younger girls are all very competitive as well. We like that about each other. We help each other in workouts and it's a great way to workout.
Q: Does your core feel as you have to show the younger people how to take over the program after this year?
LM: Yeah, we're showing them what to do, how to go into runs the right way, run aggressively the days you need to and run easier the days you need to. They learn very quickly and I think they are going to take over and do a good job at it.
JG: That's one thing we have been very lucky with here at Penn State over the years with our cross country, middle distance and distance runners. The upperclassmen do a wonderful job of showing the ropes to our younger kids as they come into the program. It really goes a long way in terms of those kids and their preparation and learning and understanding. In high school, a lot of the very best kids are on a team and they are by themselves. They train by themselves on a regular basis, they aren't in an environment where they get pushed so to speak, like when you do when you get to the college level. Instead of being an individual or the best person on the team, you are now a group of about 15 or 20 of the best people from teams around the country all in the same spot. Learning how to manage that, learning how to train, learning how to do things appropriately, learning how to rest when it's time to rest is something that great leaders do and we've been lucky to have that here at Penn State the last couple of years in our track and cross country programs.
Q: Did you guys do anything in the off-season, compete in any competitions or any races, how did you prepare for the season?
LM: For me, I didn't do any races. The summer is all about getting your miles in, really just going out every day and getting your daily miles is how you get your base and ready for the season.
MF: I would just say the one thing with distance running is that different than other sports in the NCAA is that we have three seasons. We go throughout the whole year, so the important thing after a long track season, which ended in the middle of June, you need to take some downtime to make sure you are fully rested and ready to go for the cross country season. At that point you have to log the miles, get a base so that you are ready to compete all the way through until November with the cross country team. It's not really that important to be sharp enough to be race ready in July or August. You just have to have the miles that will sharpen you up when it counts in October and November.
Q: John, how do you feel about your runners doing a 5k back home?
JG: In the summertime, I think it's a good opportunity to test yourself and see where your fitness is at that point. As both Matt and Lauren were both saying, our time to be ready is in October and November. The way NCAA cross country and qualifying for nationals so to speak, works is starting on Sept. 26, that's when the meets actually count towards qualifying. Even for the first five, six weeks of the season, you see teams don't run their full squads or run a half squad here, half squad there, because they are making sure they are ready for October and November when it's championship time and the meets you go to compete in can actually count towards earning points towards the national championships. Running 5k road races over the summertime or a 10k here and there is something that is open. We tell our runners if they are interested in doing that they should go test themselves and see where they are. One thing you want to avoid is that you don't want to do it every weekend. You don't want to get to the point where you are constantly racing. A race in June or a race in July or August to test your fitness is something that can be beneficial to their summer training.
Q: How beneficial is that first five weeks to get the freshmen more accommodated to collegiate running?
JG: It is very important. Cross country and the intensity of the training, the intensity of the racing, it goes up tenfold. Particularly with the freshmen, in high school a lot of those freshmen they'll go to a meet and there will be no one around them. They are just running against a clock and when you get to the college level, every meet is like a state championship. If not, even more intense than that. It takes some time; it takes some getting used to being in that environment. Being used to mentally preparing for those types of competitions, being physically ready for that. That's what we will use a lot of August and September to prepare for. So when we go to Notre Dame on Oct. 4, we are ready to go. That meet is intense from the gun and you have to be prepared for that. The summertime, putting in the miles and these six, seven weeks leading up to that and the competitions we have in between there are really essential. When the time comes you are ready to go, because the reality is that you have three opportunities. We have Notre Dame, we have the Pre-National meet and the Big Ten Championships. Those are our three opportunities to earn points as a team to qualify for nationals, so when that part of the season comes around we need to be ready to go.