Cross Country teams focused on winning despite rebuilding

by Tyler Sprinkle – Asst. Sports Editor – [email protected]
In the realm of professional sports, athletes such as Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez wore jersey No. 13 with belief the number would bring  luck to their game.
The UNC Asheville men’s and women’s cross country teams’ roster each have a competitive runner count of 13. Amidst program restructure, the numbers have no tie-in to luck – these teams consist of a group of athletes whose goal is to cross the finish line in the front of Big South Conference rankings.
“Our main focus this year is to just make a name for UNC Asheville cross country,” Coach Jesse Norman said. “We want to make a statement in the conference.”
In the past, cross country was used as a building block for outdoor track runners, but this year the entire team is shifting its concentration.
“We plan to focus on cross country itself rather than build for track,” Norman said. “We want to run fast this (cross country) season, turn around and run well (in track season).”
Since 2009, Norman kept a record of the top 10 time trials at the beginning of each season. Time trials consist of the women’s team running 5 kilometers and the men running 8, all to the best of their ability at the present time. At the beginning of August, both teams broke records, charting eight new top 10 times for the women and at least five for the men’s records.
“This summer we laid down a big foundation for some good training and even better races this season,” sophomore runner Kevin Paradise said via email.
“I was really excited to see how hard the freshman class worked this summer. It’s really showing during workouts,” Paradise said.
Although more than half of the team is underclassmen, the men’s team still wants to place in the top four in conference this season. The young group has the ability to do it, Norman said.
“The talent is there so we need to see what experience we can gain with running the 8K and make a run for the conference title in the next few years,” Norman said.
Last season, Melanie Kulesz and Emma Bussard were red-shirted to elongate their eligibility in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“Red-shirting (last season) made me realize I can’t just train. I need to be competitive and race,” junior student Kulesz said. “We all have so much passion for this sport, each other and our coaches. That is what it takes to win championship meets.”
Along with increasing the weekly mileage and implementing new strength tactics, the women’s team has twice as many runners working toward a competing spot compared to 2010.  Achieving the goal of claiming the conference title will come from the team having a more “upfront presence,” Norman said.
“Everything is geared toward bringing out our positivity and toughness,” Kulexz said. “You can’t get anywhere if you don’t believe in yourself. Our coaches believe in us 100 percent and that is what keeps us driving forward.”
The men’s and women’s teams will begin the season at the Western Carolina Invitational on Friday.