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Aug 26, 2013
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Director and head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan, associate head coach John Gondak and senior Nick Scarpello met with members of the media during Fall Sports Media Day in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Q: What are your expectations for your squads this season?
Coach Sullivan: Our first practice was this past Wednesday, and we finished off last year very well with lots of momentum on the women's side having won the Big Ten championship in outdoor track & field and scoring in all of the events for the distance kids, so we felt very positive. We lost a couple ladies to graduation but we bring back a lot of kids who have developed into some really good distance runners, so we look very excited and prepared. This women's team is very prepared for a big fall. Michigan, Michigan State will be teams in the way but we will be looking to try and crack the code in the Big Ten on the ladies' side. On the guys' side, we had a tremendous summer; just a phenomenal summer of training and everybody has come very fit. We have kind of two cores, two different cores, on the men's side. We have a seasoned, maybe the old and treacherous group on the men's side, who have put in the miles and are very seasoned. There's about six or eight of those guys. Then we have about six or eight young guys who are eventually going to be very good for us as they start their college careers as well. So we look to again contend in the Big Ten. We've had years on and years off in the top, upper echelon of the Big Ten on the men's side and we shoot to regain that and get the squad back to the NCAA's on the men's side.
Q: Have you had the chance to meet any of the freshmen? What are your expectations for them or how are you going to show that leadership on the course?
Nick Scarpello: Well, this year being a senior, this is the biggest freshmen class we've had come in in my time, so we have a handful of guys with great marks from high school. We have state champions, people who have run fast miles, two miles and their young and there's plenty of time to grow. I think pulling from the leadership of some of the older guys, we are looking at a team that is poised to, for the next several years, be able to continue to make an impact in the region and in the Big Ten. From what I've seen so far these first couple of days I have been in town, the freshmen are full of enthusiasm and everybody has their head square on their shoulders, which I find exciting because I see the work ethic is there and there's a lot of potential for growth, especially from the young guys.
Q: What's the effect of getting a chance to compete at the pre-national invitation?
Coach Sullivan: That's a great question and I think that a lot of our sport - I mean obviously it's a really tough, grit sport - you've got to log the miles, put in the training and put in the up-front work. You also mentally have to be a very competitive person and a very sharp person and getting on the course ahead of time gives us a chance to get out there and get into the surroundings and the actual physical course and race hard to know what the demands will be on that given day in November.
Q: Nick, how much does that help you as a runner?
Nick Scarpello: It helps big time, both physically and mentally, that I'm having that rehearsal. Knowing the lay of the land and knowing where it's going to be rocky or where there are turns or where the course gets wet. I think we're the type of team that always toes the line with a lot of confidence but we end up toeing the line even more confidently knowing we've been there before and we can remember four weeks ago the mistakes we made or where things went right and where we were able to work as a group on the course. So it's a huge advantage, I'm really excited because it will be the first year I am attending pre-nationals.
Q: Looking at Nationals, how do you expect to do this year, as compared to last year?
Coach Sullivan: The women are poised and ready to maintain the top-15 finish. We've been at nationals the last four years straight and had three top-15 finishes out of those four years so they certainly don't want to be the team to take the step backward. They are prepared for that and I think we have a good squad to be able to maintain that or continue to progress that forward. On the guys' side, we've been kind of a hot and cold. We've been at NCAAs and we've missed getting to NCAAs, so as Nick has stated, this group is very motivated. We really had some great success last year. We had a great day at the Big Ten championship, struggled a little bit at the Regional, but then came back through the track seasons and had some phenomenal performances from our guys that are difference makers. I think that gave them a lot of confidence into their summer training. We've got Robbie Creese, first time kind of really putting after cross country last year and was 25th or 26th in the conference. He'll look to make a top-15 finish this year. That's an easy thing to do. A kid like Brannon Kidder - a phenom on the track - also looks to step into our top five, which really strengthens us up with these guys that are a little bit more hardcore distance guys. This is an exciting men's team and if they are able to capitalize on our competition through the regular season and set themselves up to get to NCAAs, hey could be relatively dangerous once we get there. So bottom line goal for the guys is to get their butts to NCAAs and we'll figure it out from there.
Q: How different is it for middle distance runners like Robbie and Brannon to run the longer distances in cross country?
Coach Sullivan: It's an adaptation. They've really have to take it relatively slow. Both Brannon and Robbie were redshirted their freshman years of cross country and really just trained alongside guys and got used to doing some of the training and some of the mileage. Coach Gondak coaches them during the track seasons and their emphasis is somewhat distance based and strength based and so they get very strong throughout our track seasons as well and they are very motivated kids to help the program. Both of these guys, as was Ryan Foster behind you, are committed to being the best Penn State athletes they can be so if it means cross country it means cross country. So if you put all that together and give them a little bit of time you're going to see some great stuff. Robbie has come in in great shape this fall, way ahead of where he was a year ago. Kidder is just riding along and making sure we don't let him do too much and we've got to keep him healthy and progressing but they're right in the mix so it will be interesting.
Q: Nick, spinning off what you said about having a rehearsal of the course, how much do you look forward to the home meets and knowing the home course here as compared to away meets? Does that really mean a lot to you?
Nick Scarpello: The home meets are great. First of all, there's a lot of pride in knowing that all of the cross country courses I have ran in college, we definitely have the toughest course. And that's the course where we are doing workouts there, we know the lay of the land, we know that it gets tough as it gets to the final mile of the course, so it's fun for us and we get great fan turnout. That home-course advantage, especially in my time here, we've run regionals at the home course twice, it gives you lots of confidence. You know that you have fans and you have your teammates and your friends behind you throughout the season. So our first home meet will be the Spiked Shoe Invite and it will be a lot of fun. We've had good weather and bad weather in the past but we'll see what happens.
Q: So you think it actually gives you a significant advantage, just knowing the course as well as you do?
Nick Scarpello: Yeah, I'd say so. Just being physically and mentally prepared and knowing what's coming. We always run with a lot of confidence on our home course.
Q: Nick, what do you think will be one of the bigger challenges for the men's team this year?
Nick Scarpello: I think one of the bigger challenges will be, in my years here, we've always had a solid long-term goal and every year the goal has been the same, get to Nationals, and this year we are going to be careful about what specifically we want to do in the long term and just focus on the process. And that's the key. If everybody can step on the starting line on a week-to-week basis and know that they are going to focus on having success in this specific race and then the rest will take care of itself. I think everybody just banding together and trusting their training, and the rest will take care of itself I guess.
Coach Sullivan: And it's a lofty goal to get to NCAAs. It's about 31 teams of about 300 or so schools that host the sport and it's a race. So you really have to be on and prepared at the moment so it's a lofty goal. It's not something to be disappointed. We were a couple spots out of getting there last year and a little bit here and a little bit there would've changed our chances of a nationals appearance but these guys, as he said, we keep the goal until we achieve the goal and I think they're very willing to make sure that from day one until that Regional championship. We've just got to toe the line and stay the course.
Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the women?
Coach Sullivan: I think it's going to be staying healthy. We've got some big shoes to fill when we lost two of our top five to graduation and both of them were kids that were four-year run nationals appearances. Both Natalie Bower and Brooklyn Ridder led our team throughout their careers to the national championships. They brought a lot of experience to it. You take them out of the fold and the crew that is there, although individually may have had some great successes, hasn't collectively been apart of something for that duration of time so they've got some shoes to fill and they've got some leadership to fill. And then staying healthy. I'm impressed. They went home for the summer and in our sport you have to have a full summer of training and we don't get the chance to supervise that or coach that and so it's a very independent summer and they've come back in very good shape. I also have to have them in very great shape in November so it's a test of maintaining that right now.
Q: Since being named associate head coach, what are some of the different things you've brought to the program?
Coach Gondak: I don't know if necessarily the duties have changed a whole lot from when I started here eight years ago, but one of the things I always continue to work hard on is bringing in great recruits for Coach Sullivan as we continue to try to keep the success that we've had with the men's and the women's cross country teams and just trying to keep creating a great environment for people to come here and be successful. I think if you've seen the results we've had over the past few years, you'll know that we continually bring in very solid and very good runners foundationally out of high school and see them continue to develop and do very successful things while they're here. It's an honor to be associate head coach and work with Coach Sullivan but in ways we've had a great system before and we're trying to keep that chugging along.