Stanford Frontrunners Derrick,
by Jon Hendershott
Stanford Frontrunners Derrick,
by Jon Hendershott
Elliott Heath, Chris Derrick and Jake Riley have led No. 2-rated Stanford all fall: “This year, we have a really clear idea. We have three guys right up front together, then five or six who can work in the second pack.” says Derrick.
It's a scene that has been played out frequently on cross country courses this fall: three men in the crimson of Stanford leading the pack through most of the race before finishing together, often crossing the line holding hands.
But today's ultra-accurate timing devices have seen fit to separate the Cardinal trio of senior Elliott Heath and juniors Chris Derrick and Jake Riley, even if their whole point was to finish as one.
At the late-September Stanford Invitational on their home course, the threesome let David McNeill of Northern Arizona break away early and hold on to win. But the group then finished together in 23:22 for the 8K route, even if the final results ordered them Heath-Riley-Derrick.
Three weeks later, the three amigos ran together at the Pre-Nationals, Derrick (23:16.9) being given the win ahead of Heath (same time) and Riley (23:17.1). Then at the Pac-10, the order was Heath (23:00.46), Riley (23:00.57) and Derrick (23:00.59).
Understandably, Stanford's men's squad ranked No. 1 nationally in the USTFCCCA coaches poll from the start of the season through the conference weekend. Then NCAA team title defender Oklahoma State edged ahead of the Cardinal in last week's voting by just two points.
Now two races remain in the college harrier campaign, this weekend's Regionals and the NCAA itself on November 20.
As Derrick points out, the Stanford trio's 1-2-3 finishes this season have been by design, just like the performances of the entire team.
"This year, we have had a more clear team identity," says the 20-year-old native of Naperville, Illinois. "I think that last year we were equally as much a team, but we were a little unclear as to how that would play out come race time.
"We went into the start of last year with a lot of question marks about how good were we going to be and who would fit where. Because it was unclear and we didn't want to go balls-out at the beginning of the year, we ended up all kind of running together a lot. That probably wasn't the best thing. There were too many guys trying to stay too close together when the ability wasn't there at that time.
"But this year, we have a really clear idea. We have three guys right up front together, then five or six who can work in the second pack. I think it’s just more organic in the ability levels and how everyone fits together. The team aspect has always been there; now, we just have a more clear identity."
Stanford went into last year's NCAA meet as the team favorite. While Derrick finished 3rd individually, the team struggled and ended up back in 10th. But Derrick feels that disappointing finish gave the team the impetus to establish this year's definite roles.
"We went into nationals last year without a clear plan," he points out. "It was that in every race we had just gone to the front and we had won. So that's what we would do at nationals. But when things didn't go our way, we didn't have a clear sense of who we were to fall back on.
"This year, we have said from the start, 'We will have a basic outline of what we're going to do.' Last year, we were almost scared to tell guys to back off. We didn't want to mess with their confidence because things were going so well.
"But this year, it's, 'Hey, this is what you are supposed to do, and you and you, so let's go get it done.' It's been important to have that since we didn't have that cohesive direction last year. But this year we wanted to have that to fall back on."
Says Jason Dunn, Stanford's third-year harrier coach, "After last year, the team aspect was definitely something we had to focus on. We did a lot of things very well as far as being a team. We just didn't execute it on the day that mattered most.
"We considered that maybe we had to sacrifice some individual aspirations at a certain point to make sure we keep people together and race as a group, like we train together all the time.
"We have tried to more clearly define everyone's role this year. Last year, things went so smoothly that we all, me included, fell into a trap of feeling that things would just fall into place at nationals if we just kept doing what we had been doing.
"But we, including me, learned a lot in terms of how we had to more clearly define roles. The guys had to understand that, for example, they may have to be a bit more patient in races to work with teammates to keep the groups together.
"As it stands now, we have basically two groups: the three up front and I don't think there is anyone else right now who can run with them. But then if the next group of four or five can work together well, and have at least a couple of them finish real strong when they need to, then we should be in a good spot."
Of the leading three, Derrick says, "We work out together all the time and I think we're just on a similar ability level right now. It's not very forced for us to run together. Just based on how we work out, I think it would be really, really hard for one of us to drop the other two.
"But we never decided, 'We're going to run together as a group.' It just kind of happened. It was like, 'We're going to work together and we'll see what happens at the end of the race.' It just turned out that in several races, we were all alone. It was like, 'Well, we might as well finish together.'"
Derrick adds that the unique team aspect of cross country fit neatly with Stanford's role-playing approach.
"It did and I also think that cross is different from track in that in track, everybody runs different events and sometimes on different days at meets. You train differently from other guys, so track is more disparate.
"But in cross country, everybody runs the same distance and does pretty much the same training. There are minor variations for some guys, but generally you just get more unity. I think that anyone who has ever been a part of a good cross country team knows that that is a very powerful thing to be a part of."
Now there are two races left. At the '09 West Regional, Derrick, Heath and the graduated Justin Marpole-Bird finish 1-2-3 within 4.0 of each other. But Derrick feels that every race is a new challenge.
"Every race is always a test of yourself and how you're going to handle things," he feels. "Just because you've handled something before doesn't mean you can handle it again, without putting in the same amount of effort.
"But I do think that experience is important; experience matters. It particularly matters through the process that is a whole season. Just dealing with the highs and lows during a year, as well as in a race itself. It's a long race [10K at both Regionals and nationals], it's really competitive and there will be times when you feel like crap but also when you feel awesome.
"So having experience is major; knowing that you have been there, that you can produce. At the end of the day, knowing that if you run tough, you're going to be alright. That's a good outlook to be able to fall back on.
"Having been there before, I don't have to look at all the results. My frosh year, I did: 'OK, I beat this guy by 10 seconds and he beat that guy by 10 seconds.' I was always trying to figure out where I stood.
"But after a couple of years, you realize that the NCAA is a whole different animal. Certain guys are going to have a break-out race and be up front, and if you want to be one of them you just run tough."
Neither Derrick nor Dunn think that last year's disappointment had to happen in order to bring about the renewed team attitude of this season. But the coach says, "It definitely was a huge learning experience for all of us, like I said. I hadn't been in the situation of having the No. 1-ranked team and how to manage that. So it was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. We’re just much more ready to deal with it this year.
"And the exciting thing is that Elliott is our only senior in eligibility. And we have two guys who didn't run the Pac-10 who certainly are capable of contributing: Brendan Gregg is redshirting this fall and Ben Johnson should be back for nationals. So it's an exciting time.
"And it's great to have that depth. We have talked about that this year, having the depth to push everyone ahead of them and keep everybody honest."
Derrick also feels that while running well in cross country doesn't necessarily correlate directly to running well on the track, there is some application.
"Fitness is fitness," says Derrick, who set an American Junior Record 5000 of 13:29.98 in '09 as a frosh and placed 3rd and 4th in the last two NCAA outdoor 5Ks. "If you're fit enough to run cross country, you're probably fit enough to run pretty well on the track.
"But I think they are a little different, just in terms of how the races play out. In cross, you can use brute force the last 2K and try to run away from people.
"Track is a little more nuanced; you've got to have some wheels to separate yourself at the end of a race. It's a lot harder to drop people when you're running in a straight line around a flat surface, as opposed to over hill and dale. But if you're fit, you're fit."
Junior Chris Derrick
Senior Elliott Heath
Junior Jake Riley