The UC Irvine Men’s and Women’s Cross Country teams are both expected to finish in the top three at this Saturday’s Big West Conference Championships at UC Riverside.
The UCI programs have spent a decade climbing towards the top of the conference heap and now they are about to do just that in the Big West Championships this Saturday. Head Coach Vince O’Boyle, freshman Marie Nguyen, junior Ricky Barnes and senior Kim Ramirez give us their personal perspectives of their seasons based on where they are in their collegiate careers.
‘A diverse group of ages on the men’s side can help us,’ said O’Boyle, who is in his 22nd year at UCI. ‘Having a couple of seniors, juniors and a sophomore means that they have trained together for quite a while.’
O’Boyle’s philosophy is to improve every year and to reach the goals of most mid-tier programs: win the conference and send qualifying individual runners to the regional and national meets. Experience is critical, and O’Boyle believes it will benefit the men most. The women are younger, but most of them have high school experience from section and state meets.
‘Physically, they are all prepared to go. It’s just a mental thing now, and that comes from within,’ O’Boyle said.
The difference in recruiting over the past decade underscores the progress of the program and of the university.
‘It was a walk-on environment a few years ago. Now we are more selective,’ O’Boyle said. ‘The success of the other programs helped too. Cross country always benefits when the entire athletic department is doing well overall. This used to be a harder sell than now.’
O’Boyle does not need to learn how to build the program; he has done that before. The men were a conference power in the 1980’s and the women won 11 conference titles from 1983-1999, including a No. 4 national ranking in 1990.
But in the summer of 1992, the cross country program was cut for reasons of budget and gender equity. It was reinstated three months later but the scab did not go away easily. Some runners stayed to finish their education, but others had already transferred to other schools. The recruiting strength had to be slowly rebuilt, but the coaching style has always been the same. O’Boyle’s runners have always known him to be honest and truthful, traits that he says his father instilled in him. He plays the roles of coach and counselor for the team.
‘Part of being a coach is to understand what they are going through,’ O’Boyle said. ‘They see some difficult times. The biggest adjustment for them is the college scene. The competition is the easy part.’
Cross country is the epitome of nonrevenue sports and a coach has to monitor expenses, but he always wants one big trip each year to a prestigious meet outside of the region. This year, that meant the Notre Dame Invitational.
‘It’s the opportunity to expose [the team] and let them learn more,’ O’Boyle said. ‘Even if the point total isn’t as good, it leads us into the conference meet.’
For the men, O’Boyle has to help them adjust to a much longer race in college. They now have to compete in 8K or 10K races instead of a 5K, which they ran in high school. The women don’t have as big of an adjustment to make (their race is now a 5K or a 6K), but they typically take more time to develop a personal relationship with their coach.
‘[The women] start off uneasy, but they get better at sharing things,’ O’Boyle said. ‘They begin to look at me differently and start to become more understanding with time.’
O’Boyle is excited about having nine freshmen women on his team this year and his top recruit has already exceeded expectations.
Marie Nguyen was a star in high school and also drew interest from UC Davis, UC San Diego, San Jose State and Pacific. But she had two former teammates at UCI and O’Boyle’s strong interest won her over. She came here hoping only to make the varsity team. Now, her coach thinks she can be the school’s best runner ever.
‘I have been cautious to make sure I stay focused,’ said Nguyen. ‘College is a lot of balancing your work, but it makes me feel happy to see the team at morning practice.’
As with most college athletes, Nguyen’s teammates quickly became her best friends and watched out for her.
‘I haven’t met many other people because I am so busy,’ says Nguyen
Despite having no experience in all of this season’s meets’ courses, Nguyen has been a consistent finisher and helped the women’s team win the Cal Poly Invitational on Oct. 16.
‘I’m still getting to know the courses,’ Nguyen said. ‘You don’t know how the hills will hit you. Experience makes such a big difference.’
Most runners are more conservative on a course they do not know because they don’t want to run out of energy. Cal Poly’s course is very hilly and Nguyen had to hold back.
‘Next time, I will definitely be more aggressive, now that I know how to run that course,’ Nguyen said.
Her approach to the conference meet is not to over-analyze the challenge. She knows she can help the team most by simply focusing on her time and looking to the seniors for guidance.
‘I just want to go and do my best,’ Nguyen said. ‘I need to just run hard.’
Even though junior runner Ricky Barnes can be considered one of the leaders on his team by having placed as the first UCI runner in several invitationals this season, such as the UCI and Cal Poly SLO invite, he does not consider himself to be one.
‘There is no exact leader of the team,’ Barnes said. ‘Everyone feeds off each other.’
Barnes also does not want to be a ‘September superstar’ because what really matters is how he performs in October and November, when the Big West Championships and Regionals take place. As a junior, Barnes feels like his discipline has changed a lot.
‘Small things matter more,’ Barnes said, like stretching. ‘Everything outside of the actual running [matters].’
Now, he is also trying to stay consistent in his training habits. Before, Barnes stated that he ‘just didn’t know what it took to perform to your expectations.’
He also is more patient, listens to all of O’Boyle’s advice and tries to implement his suggestions in how he runs. Barnes started training with fellow junior runner Tom Whelan in Mammoth this past summer as extra preparation for the upcoming season.
He is also more focused this year in training and at practices. In every race he participates, Barnes comes in with a strong intent to just stay relaxed. With the Big West Championships quickly approaching, Barnes feels that he has done everything he can to prepare physically. Even though he is currently fighting a cold, he plans to feel good come the day of the conference.
In any invitational, the team is what matters most to Barnes before his own individual standing.
‘I’m not concerned where I place in the team,’ Barnes said. ‘It’s more about where the team places overall.’
He wants to ‘send a message’ to the rest of the conference by making a good standing in the Championships. Barnes’ goal is for the men’s team to finish second overall.
‘I definitely want to make all-conference, but in the back of my head I also want to go to Nationals,’ Barnes said. Maybe ‘[I’m] counting my eggs too fast.’
With three years of hard mileage under her belt, senior cross country runner Kim Ramirez feels like everything is coming together this season.
This is her last season competing in the collegiate level, and she knows it every time she goes out to run a race. This year has brought a lot of perspective to Ramirez.
‘Last opportunity I’m going to run this race,’ Ramirez said. She doesn’t want to regret anything. She just wants to do her best.
Ramirez transferred to UCI from UC Berkeley during her freshman year.
‘The atmosphere [at Berkeley] was more individual-based … and I wanted to be on a team that was more team-oriented,’ Ramirez said. ‘So I decided to transfer to UC Irvine. And I’m glad I made the right decision!’
She originally was a walk-on and was also never recruited. As a freshman runner, Ramirez came in last place numerous times. Ramirez even cried after a few races. But now she has confidence in herself and she believes in her ability to run her races the way she wants to.
‘[Mentally] and physically I’m in better shape then ever in my life,’ Ramirez said.
This summer, she trained the hardest she ever had and put double days in the pool.
‘I want to be a part of that tradition,’ Ramirez said, a tradition of great distance runners who have competed for UCI.
As a senior, Ramirez is more focused, motivated and patient. Although she now focuses on her races by taking them one at a time, Ramirez admits that she used to daydream while running races, but now she is determined to do her best.
‘If there is a hill, get over it. Just break up the race and run each one strong,’ Ramirez said of her mentality during a race.
Now, she cannot believe her career is almost coming to an end.
Ramirez suffered a hamstring injury her sophomore year which led her to red-shirt one season of track and cross country. But the failure and pain have helped her get to where she is at right now, her final season. Ramirez states that her career here at UCI has been a journey filled with many friends. As one of the leaders in the women’s team, Ramirez has seen the freshmen go through their own transitions of getting used to competing at the collegiate level. Sometimes they cry, but Ramirez reminds them that they are good runners and they will perform well.
‘Believe me, because I’ve been through it,’ Ramirez stated.
Now, with the Big West Championships this Saturday, Ramirez is confident. There is no room for intimidation.
‘I have to trust my training and I’ve taken care of myself,’ Ramirez said.
Her ultimate goal is to finish her season in a memorable fashion, as well as to run strong races in the Championships and Regionals. Ramirez has already improved her times by at least a minute at this year’s invitationals compared to her times last year in the same races. Each one of these individuals faces their own challenge. But when the gun goes off on Saturday, rankings will not matter anymore.
According to Ramirez, ‘It’s how you race at that particular day’ which will make the difference.