While most students were daydreaming of turkey dinners and stuffing themselves with homemade food on Nov. 19, Ryan O’Connell was focusing on eight kilometers.
In just his fourth year of running cross country, the junior tri-captain on the Springfield College men’s cross country team found himself lining up with 278 of the best Division III runners across the country at the Lake Breeze Golf Club at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to compete in the NCAA Division III National Championships.
“Everybody’s fast at this race. You think you’re good because you were top in your region, but guess what, everybody else is top in their region too,” O’Connell said. “I thought I was going fast throughout the whole race, and I was getting passed by packs of people. It’s a whole new level out there.”
Despite running against stellar competition, O’Connell, known affectionately as OC by his teammates, held his own finishing in 88th place out of 279 runners in his first trip to nationals.
O’Connell said his strategy was to go out fast to get position and then hold on the best he could. After putting himself in a good position by going out in a time of 4:50 for the first mile, O’Connell maintained his pace, dropping only a few seconds in the remaining miles to end with a time of 25:11.83.
Two years earlier, however, O’Connell nearly quit the sport that he is now so dedicated to.
“He came in freshman year really raw. He’d only run one year before that,” teammate and senior tri-captain Matt Peabody said. “It kind of showed his freshman year. He had some tough times.”
O’Connell did not begin running cross country until his senior year of high school, which for runners is considered a very late start. According to O’Connell, he played football his sophomore and junior years of high school, mainly starting on special teams and getting some garbage time as a wide receiver and defensive back.
His first experience with running came in his junior year after the football season came to a close when he decided to run track. Over the summer between his junior and senior years, however, he attended football camp, but at some point in time, O’Connell decided to call an audible. Instead of spending his senior year playing sparingly in football, he decided to get in shape for track by running cross country. The decision was a no-brainer, especially since he knew he would not be playing football in college.
After running well in his senior year of high school, O’Connell joined the Springfield College men’s cross country team, but his collegiate career was nearly cut short three months into his freshman season.
“I was struggling in workouts, kind of falling back. I was just having a hard time. I couldn’t stay with the guys,” O’Connell said. “My legs were just heavy and tired, and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have it in me, and he [Peter Ferraro, the team’s coach at the time] just pulled me aside.”
According to accounts by both O’Connell and Peabody, the former coach told OC that they’d been at it for three months, and if he could not keep up with the pack at that point in the season, he might as well just quit.
“I’ve never had anybody tell me just to quit before in anything,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell admits that he contemplated quitting, but ultimately decided against it because he did not want to leave the team or let them down. Instead, he trained even harder the summer going into his sophomore year.
“I ran more and did more work because personally I wanted to get better,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t like where I was at.”
Regulated in essence to the junior varsity team (although the team does not officially have one) his freshman year, O’Connell made it his goal to make the regional squad and make an impact at the varsity level during his sophomore campaign.
O’Connell did just that, coming out firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the season, leading the Pride as their top finisher in four of the first five meets.
“He kind of surprised everyone because no one expected him to be as good as he was,” Peabody said. “He was up there in the top five after being pretty much on JV the year before.”
Although he finished the remaining meets well, his times were not good enough to qualify him for nationals.
Entering his junior season, O’Connell received the final piece he needed to decrease his time in the form of a coaching change.
Coach Bryan Brown, a former All-American runner at SC, took over as head coach of the team and made an immediate impact in his first season. His cross-country experience helped him to connect with the team on a deeper level.
“He’s gone through it. He knows what it takes. He knows what you have to do to be good,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell credits Brown as one of the major reasons for his success this year. He felt that he was able to train more effectively under Brown and did not burn out like in previous years due to Brown’s methods.
Although the team did not achieve their goal of qualifying for Nationals in the NCAA Division III New England Regionals on Nov. 12, O’Connell’s time earned him an individual spot in the championship field.
The team finished ninth out of 48 teams, with O’Connell leading the way for the Pride with an eighth place finish out of 322 total runners.
“During the race, it was the last 600 meters or so, and I’m coming around a corner and some guy’s like, ‘Go SC! You’ve got a guy in the top 10,’ and I was like, ‘That’s got to be OC,’” Peabody said. “I was really proud of him. There’s no kid who doesn’t deserve it more than him.”
With his nationals experience behind him, one goal remained unfulfilled at the end of this season.
“I wish the guys made it with me so we could all experience it,” he said.
Despite not achieving their team goal, the SC men’s cross country team rolls into the indoor track season confident in their chances for next year’s cross country season with O’Connell leading the way.
Joe Brown may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org