Picture yourself as an NCAA coach, and then imagine your ideal athlete _ a fierce competitor and hard worker _ someone willing to put in time and training in the offseason with no coaches present.
But not only an athlete, but a leader serious enough to be focused and concerned about the little things, but personable enough to keep team spirits high during rigorous workouts.
That's the description of Lipscomb University's Ruth Mick, who has led the Lady Bisons' 2004 cross country campaign.
"Ruth does all the right things," said head coach Clay Nicks. "She's really good with nutrition. She gets good sleep. She's a good student, and she's really disciplined in all the areas."
Mick, in the midst of a stellar junior season, isn't alone in her commitment to doing things right.
"It's an attitude this whole team has taken on," said Nicks. "They're all focused and doing the little things right."
The hard work is paying off for Lipscomb. After finishing 7th in the 2003 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship, Nicks and his Lady Bisons came away unsatisfied. The effort was there, but the times and the results suffered due to untimely injuries. Mick, along with several other Lady Bisons, came to Nicks in the offseason for training advice. They were willing to do whatever it would take to get the program to the next level.
The effect of their hard summer's work was immediately obvious to Nicks.
"All of the girls came in very fit," said Nicks. "We were able to design more challenging workouts for Ruth and some of the other girls, and it had a domino effect."
Nicks explained that the girls ran in packs in workouts, so they knew they could stay close in races.
"When one or two runners break through and start racing well, the rest realize they can do it, too," Nicks said.
Personal records have been set and reset by most of the Lady Bisons this season, and no one has improved more dramatically than Mick.
"She's always been a great middle distance runner for us," said Nicks, "but I think she's starting to realize that she can compete at a high level in the longer cross country races."
Mick has taken nearly a full minute off of her 5000-meter time - the distance raced by women in NCAA cross country. That's a world of difference in a 3.1 mile race. Going from averaging 6:20 per mile to less than six minutes isn't easy. Nicks credits much of Mick's success to a change in racing strategy.
"Ruth is more confident in herself this year, and she's going out more aggressively," Nicks said. "She's been consistently pushing herself past a pain threshold. Ruth has always been a very good mental runner, a strong runner, a competitive runner - but it just sort of started clicking this year."
Even so, there is an intangible in all sports that reserves itself for only the most determined of athletes, and Nicks sees it in Ruth. It's the highest compliment a coach can pay his athletes.
"All that being said, I think her success has come from within more than anything else," he said.
Mick will be competing with the other A-Sun runners for one of the top spots in this weekend's Conference Championship. The race, which will be held at Nashville's Vaughn's Gap Park. The women's 5K event is set to start at 9:00 a.m. CT, with the men's 8K event to follow at 10:00 a.m.
"Ruth is in the best shape right now that she's ever been in," said Nicks. "The girls have all worked hard. I think they're ready for this.