Benjamin VandenBrink makes history as first UMSL runner to compete in NCAA Division II Cross Country Championship
He’d first encountered UMSL cross country and track and field Coach Steve Picucci while competing with his Warriors track club at an indoor meet in Columbia, Missouri, during his senior year of high school at Collegiate School of Medicine and Biosciences.
Picucci talked him into taking an official recruiting visit to UMSL, and VandenBrink liked enough of what he saw that he pledged to be part of the coach’s first recruiting class at a time when Picucci was still just beginning to resurrect a cross country program that had been dormant since 1983.
Four years later, VandenBrink can say with certainty it was the right decision. On Saturday, he will line up among an elite field of 260 runners for the 10-kilometer NCAA Division II Men’s Cross Country Championship at Tom Rutledge Cross Country Course in Joplin, Missouri. He earned a spot as an individual qualifier after finishing 10th at the Midwest Region Championship race on Nov. 4 and is the first UMSL runner to get a chance to race on the national stage.
“It’s validating that I made the right choice when I chose UMSL,” he said. “Having a program that really wasn’t established at all was a risk. Having that pay off and me now making it to the national stage just validates my decision to choose Coach Steve. Obviously, he recruited me, but I also wanted to make sure it was the right fit, and it definitely was.”
VandenBrink has grown a lot under Picucci’s tutelage. He had limited experience in cross country in high school and thought of himself, first and foremost, as a track and field athlete when he started college.
“I was really just learning the sport because I had pretty much done track up until that point,” he said. “The thing about cross country is every course is different. Every competition is different. You focus a lot more on placement than on time.”
He’s grown to appreciate the nuances of the sport and the strategy that goes into each race. He’s also been motivated by the shared sense of purpose that comes with competing in a team contest – something that unfortunately will be missing when he runs on Saturday.
“I think that just fits his personality so much,” Picucci said of the team aspect of cross country. “He wants to help other people, and he wants to do his part to help the team. He’s just not just running for himself or to run for some certain time.”
After being slowed by an injury in his sophomore year, VandenBrink has had more than a year of sustained health to maximize his training. He has also benefited from physical maturity now in his fourth year of college, and it’s helped him unlock his potential throughout the fall season.
VandenBrink finished no worse than fourth individually in any of the Tritons’ four regular season meets. He placed second in the Live in the Lou Classic in Louisville, Kentucky, won the Brian T. Simpson Invitational, which UMSL hosted on Oct. 7, in Columbia, Missouri, and then took second in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championship on Oct. 21 in Bolivar, Missouri. That set the stage for his 10th-place showing in the Midwest regional in Evansville, Indiana.
“He’s extremely efficient in the way he runs,” Picucci said. “It’s just natural. There’s nothing I did. I remember recruiting him as a senior in high school. He was this big, tall, lanky kid, and he has really grown into his body and was able to get stronger, both the weight room and on the course, and it’s allowed him to be more efficient. He’s super relaxed, and the big thing is he’s just got experience now.”
VandenBrink’s efficiency carries over to the rest of his life too as he’s managed to juggle school, training, a job and a marriage during his time at UMSL.
He’s helped support himself through college by operating a lawn care and landscaping business that he started in high school – at one time maintaining 60 yards per week – in south St. Louis.
Last spring and summer, VandenBrink worked as an intern at Northwestern Mutual, and he recently began a full-time position as a mortgage loan officer at Delmar Mortgage in O’Fallon, Illinois, though he won’t be working full-time hours until after the end of the semester.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, Olyvia, a former high school classmate and now an UMSL nursing student, have been married since the summer after their freshman year of college and have bought a house together.
“I’ve always told him, ‘You chose a little bit different path than most college kids, but you’ve you found a way to make it work for you,’” Picucci said.
VandenBrink acknowledges that and recognizes the discipline he’s had to make it all work.
“A big part of it I think is just maintaining a schedule that takes advantage of every moment in the day,” he said. “From 6 o’clock in the morning when I get to practice until 8 or 9 when I’m done with homework, most of the minutes and the hours are pretty planned out so that I can be productive and get in the things that I need to throughout the day – training, work, school, classes, recovery from workouts, things like that.”
It’s also helped him to set goals, and after meeting virtually all of them this fall, he’s got one more he’d like to achieve on Saturday. He’s hoping to find his way into the top 40 individuals and earn NCAA Division II All-American honors.
It’s a lofty goal for his first time in the national meet. Even if he comes up a little short, he’s already set a standard for other UMSL runners to follow.
“Since the program first got established, my teammates and I, we’ve helped build a program that now we have runners that are competing on the national stage,” he said. “It just feels good. It feels like we’ve really established a team with a good culture and one that’s going to be competitive into the future.”
VandenBrink plans to help build on that success next fall. He’s set to begin the MBA program during the spring semester and will compete in indoor track this winter. He plans to redshirt during the outdoor season but will have eligibility remaining to compete in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track next year as he completes his master’s degree.
He’s hoping that when he makes it to the national meet next year, he’ll have a team of Tritons standing beside him at the starting line.
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