Up and running: Cross country teams laying the foundation for future success
The sun had only recently peaked over the horizon, and the campus lay quiet as members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis cross country team ran together for the first time this August.
Sophomore Sean Ede and his teammates chatted easily, no one around to interrupt them, as they moved through the humid morning air and across the rolling terrain a week before the start of the fall semester.
They had to work not to set too brisk a pace.
“We could feel the energy,” Ede says. “I had to warn everyone before we started running. I said, ‘I don’t want this to turn into some energy-fueled run where we’re all running 6:30s for 7 miles for no reason. We’ve got to stay constant. We’re going to have workouts this week. We’ve got to make sure we’re not going crazy.’”
The excitement was understandable as they kicked off training for the program’s first full season of competition after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their inaugural year, limiting them to only two races amid quarantines and cancellations.
It was not the debut Coach Steve Picucci ever envisioned, and he’d had plenty of time to dream about it since being hired in September 2019 to relaunch a men’s team that had been dormant since 1983 and establish a women’s cross country team.
Picucci brought a track record of success, most recently at Division I Morehead State, where he guided the men’s cross country team to two runner-up finishes and a third-place showing in the Ohio Valley Conference over the previous five seasons.
He and his wife, retired elite marathoner Tina Muir of Great Britain, saw St. Louis as a good place to raise their family, and Picucci welcomed the opportunity to return to the Division II level, where he’d gotten his coaching start at his alma mater, Ferris State.
“At the Division II level, it’s more of an even playing field than in Division I, and there’s more focus on the student part of student-athlete,” Picucci says. “These kids need to leave here ready to join the workforce or get a master’s. They need to be ready for that next phase. I like being able to help kids mature and prepare for life after college.”
Picucci used the year he was on staff but before he had any runners as an opportunity to meet high school coaches across the region and spread the word about UMSL’s fledgling program while slowly assembling the men’s and women’s rosters.
“Every week, I was going to two or three cross country meets, getting out and meeting coaches and watching kids race and talking to them,” he says. “I emailed every coach in Illinois and Missouri two or three times throughout that fall and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t have anybody now, keep us in mind for the future.’”
Benjamin VandenBrink remembers Picucci being the only college coach on hand to scout him when he ran in an indoor track meet in Columbia, Missouri, during the winter of his senior year.
“I actually did not run great that day, but he was able to look past that,” says VandenBrink, who graduated from Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience in south St. Louis. “We had a conversation after the race. We talked about what it was going to be like to be on the team. It was encouraging to see somebody show interest.”
VandenBrink paid a visit to UMSL and toured the campus and athletic facilities, and he decided to join Picucci’s initial recruiting class.
The university and its academic programs have been an asset for Picucci in attracting talent. VandenBrink was drawn to the strong reputation of the College of Business Administration. Ede, a graduate of Mascoutah High School in Illinois, is studying exercise science with the hope of getting into college coaching. Multiple members of both the men’s and women’s teams are part of the Pierre Laclede Honors College, taking advantage of some of its scholarship opportunities and benefitting from its smaller class sizes.
Women’s runner Kennedy Moore, who grew up near the UMSL campus and graduated from Parkway Central High School, is picking between psychology or another STEM field for her major. Like so many others in the program, she was grateful for the chance to continue her athletic pursuits.
“I thought it was an awesome opportunity,” she says. “I liked the idea of starting from the bottom and building something or helping the school build something. I thought it was really awesome UMSL was creating this team.”
The runners on the cross country teams are also competing on the track in the winter and spring, and as the programs get more established, Picucci will look to recruit more sprinters and field athletes to compete during those seasons.
But for now, the focus remains on distance running.
Despite the ups and downs of the 2020-21 academic year, the Tritons had a chance to get acclimated to campus, college coursework and training for the longer college distances. They also got their first taste of competition, which served them well this fall when – bolstered by a second class of recruits – they completed a full schedule with some notable successes.
Sophomore Jacob Warner, a Mississippi State transfer, won the H.W. Wright Classic at Millikin University, took second at the Border War XC Championship and earned all-conference honors with a 16th-place finish at the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championship. Warner helped the men place second in the H.W. Wright Classic, and they finished 11th in the conference championship. On the women’s side, freshman Lily Wagemann showed off her promising future with 16th-place finishes in the H.W. Wright Classic and the Border War XC Championship, and she led the team to a 12th-place finish in the GLVC Championship.
“Every year, we want to build on something that we did the year before,” Ede says. “Maybe a few years from now, we’ll be bringing a conference championship or something crazy to UMSL. That’d be really, really good.”
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