Freshman duo pushing cross country to new heights
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
By Mark McGee
Freshman duo pushing cross country to new heights

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The freshman season is supposed to be a time of adjustment for collegiate cross country runners. The distances are longer. The time demands are greater. The competition is better.

But don’t talk about limitations around Sally Larson or Juan Gonzalez. Each won Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year honors in the conference championship event, putting exclamation points on outstanding seasons.

Larson, fourth with a time of 17:53.28, helped the Lady Bisons win their third straight A-Sun Championship. Gonzalez, who finished second in the conference meet with a time of 25:05.70, led the Bison men to the first A-Sun title in school history.

Both have been at or near the top for their respective teams in every race this season.

Friday morning they will both participate in the NCAA Regional hosted by the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Larson, from Falls City, Wash., was expected to contribute to the team as a freshman, but her high school numbers didn’t indicate that she would be so dominant in her first year.  But Lipscomb director of cross country and track and field Bill Taylor did expect that Katie Bianchini and Larson could have a quick impact on the program. Bianchini was hurt mid-season and will be redshirted.

“Sally was ranked No. 3 or No. 4 on the freshman group coming in here,” Taylor said. “I had a gut feeling that Sally was going to be good. But I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted that she would be freshman of the year and top runner on our team in most races.

“If somebody had been doing a depth chart on high school performances they wouldn’t have necessarily expected her to be our top freshman or top runner on paper. She went to a small high school. We train differently and the competition is different.”

Some athletes might wilt when faced with a higher level of competition on a daily basis. Larson has thrived on it.

“Being able to train with girls who are really fast helps your times,” Taylor said. “It carries you to things you might know you can do.

“Some people can get intimidated by that. She hasn’t been intimidated.”

Her aerobic ability is a natural plus for Larson.

“In a workout she ran 9.8 miles at Vaughn’s Gap, where we race,” Taylor said. “If she had finished the final .2 miles she would have set a school record with her time.

“She has some natural gifts in terms of her aerobic engine. She is not afraid to take risks. She is not afraid to push herself.“

Taylor has been impressed with the way Larson approaches her running. There is no fear in her.

“She has come in and allowed herself to be as good as she can possibly be,” Taylor said. “She has been quite brave about how she races.

“She isn’t afraid to run against anybody.  She puts herself in the right position in races. She still has a lot to learn. She has been very bold about her racing. She trains incredibly well.”

The Lady Bisons were already successful and talented before Larson became a part of the team. Taylor is impressed at the way Larson was able to find her spot on the team.

“She came into a team with five girls who run in the 16s and have had all kinds of success,” Taylor said. “She not only challenged the freshmen. She challenged the whole team.

“She has an awesome personality. Our kids are all awesome, but Sally is right there at the top in terms of personality and being a positive worker.  She has made our whole program better.”

Love of running

For most, running is a chore. For Gonzalez, it is an exercise in pure joy.

“Juan has a lot of natural ability,” Taylor said. “He has a joy for life and a joy for what he is doing. He runs with a smile on his face. 

“He has great endurance and has great speed. He has everything and is another great kid. When he understands what he is fully capable of he will be a threat to win any race he is in.”

Taylor knows it sounds cliché’ but he is quick to point out that both Larson and Gonzalez, from Lake Forest, Calif., are motivated by a higher power.

“Sally and Juan both love Jesus,” Taylor said. “They praise God through running.”

Taylor and assistant coach Dan Goetz have intentionally kept Gonzalez on a regimented approach to his running. He has not come close to reaching his full potential.

“In some ways we have held him back to work with the team,” Taylor said. “That is something I don’t normally like to do.

“But when you are a freshman guy leading your team in 8Ks I didn’t feel like it was time to send him out on his own.  We are developing him correctly. We want him to learn tactics, get used to the competition, the training we do and races that are twice as long as what he has run before.”

Gonzalez wants to run in the Olympics one day. Taylor wants Gonzalez to finish as one of the best freshmen overall this season, but the ultimate goal is to have him running at the highest of competitive levels in his third and fourth years.

“Coach Goetz and I have talked at times this season about whether we should let him loose or ask him to move up during a race,” Taylor said. “I am not one who usually dwells on the side of caution in terms of race strategy, I like to be aggressive. But in every case we decided to hold him back.”

Gonzalez is part of a bright future for the men. The top four runners are three freshmen and a sophomore. Gonzalez was No. 10 in the country in the two-mile run as a senior and Christian Freeman, third in the A-Sun Championships, was ranked No. 8.

“It is harder for a freshman guy to make an immediate impact on a men’s team,” Taylor said. “The men physically mature as they get older.

“We get really excited about this freshman class. They are going to get stronger and stronger.”