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ETSU ready to welcome SoCon XC meet

Tanner Cook • Oct 30, 2019 at 11:30 AM

JOHNSON CITY — For the first time in 51 years, an NCAA Division I conference cross country championship is making Johnson City home for the day.

East Tennessee State hosts the Southern Conference meet on Saturday at Pine Oaks Golf Course. The women’s race begins at 10 a.m. and the men take the course at 10:45 a.m.

There is no entry fee for the general public.

The last — and only time — ETSU hosted a conference cross country meet was in 1968 when the Ohio Valley Conference event was held at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“There’s a lot of ETSU tradition in the Southern Conference and they’ve had a lot of success through the years while competing in this conference,” ETSU coach George Watts said.

“I’ve been really looking forward to this year for a while because I knew this was when we were scheduled to host the meet. We were never going to turn down the opportunity to host a conference championship.”

SPECIAL WEEKEND FOR ALUMS

The weekend is made even more special because it’s homecoming at ETSU, so plenty of alums should be in attendance, Watts said.

“PJ and Ed Leddy are coming in. PJ lives in Ireland and is coming with his wife. Ed lives in Nashville, so it will be good to see them come up,” Watts said. “Rick Patterson is coming in and so is Mark Finucane, who lives here locally. Dennis Stark came in from Canada the other night. On the women’s side, Linda Preston from Canada is coming down.

“We’ve got some others coming in, so the alumni and All-American presence will be strong on Saturday.”

LONG AND STORIED TRADITION

ETSU has had numerous NCAA All-Americans through the years, beginning in the early 1970s when legendary coach Dave Walker had a pipeline of recruits coming from Ireland.

The “Irish Brigade” achieved one of ETSU’s greatest athletic highs when the team was runner-up in the 1972 NCAA Championships in Houston — Tennessee won by six points — and Neil Cusack claimed the individual national title in a time of 28:23 for 6 miles.

It was the only year that Oregon phenom Steve Prefontaine did not run cross country because he had competed in the Munich Olympics just a few months prior to the meet.

“To me, this means everything in the world,” Watts said. “I’ve always been a conference guy and as an athlete, the conference meet was always the biggest race of your college career, unless you were fortunate enough to make it to the national meet. As a team, the conference meet was where it was at. It was the thing you remembered most as a team.

“I’ve talked to our athletes about taking advantage of this opportunity,” he added. “It’s on a course that we’ve been training on and no one else has, and we have a lot of alumni in town. We hope to have pretty good local crowd as well.”

THE COURSE

The cross country course at Pine Oaks uses the front nine, where the best viewing spots are on the second and fifth tees. The course is set up to be spectator-friendly and patrons can see the runners multiple times before the finish line. The men’s course is 8 kilometers (4.96 miles) and the women’s 5 kilometers.

The course is one big loop that is to be fully traversed twice by the women and three times by the men. Both races have a little more than 1,000 meters to the finish line once the race passes the start line for the final time.

“It has been great to work with the Pine Oaks Golf Course people like Bryan Bentley and the advisory board. They have been really helpful to us and I want to thank them,” Watts said. “The University Parkway Baptist Church and Scott Thompson have also been great helping us out with parking.”

Spectator parking is in both parking lots at the University Parkway Baptist Church, and the “front yard” is to be used for overflow. The upper parking lot at Pine Oaks is closed to the public.

“I had to go out there probably 20 different times to fine-tune everything on the course,” Watts said. “At my previous school, we hosted NCAA championships and NCAA regionals, so I’m kind of picky and particular about things. I was out there again just this morning one more time measuring so that I had everything accurate.

“The course is going to be both rolling and flat. I could have made it tougher, but I was worried about all the downhill running that we would have to do to make it tougher.

“There aren’t any long hills in it, but this will definitely be a challenge,” he added.

RARE OPPORTUNITY

For ETSU’s two cross country seniors — Mia DePillo on the women’s side and Adam Bradtmueller on the men’s — it’s a rare opportunity to run at home and Watts wants them to take advantage of it.

“Mia actually graduates this fall, so I think it’s pretty neat that during her last season that she gets to run a cross country meet at home,” Watts said. “I know Adam wants to do well because he’s talked about it. He wants this to be the best conference championship he’s ever had.”

There are also several locals on ETSU’s teams wanting to defend home turf and make the Bucs contenders on Saturday. Highlighting the local contingent is former Daniel Boone standout Ben Varghese, who is looking to make a return trip the NCAA Championships in November.

“Ben finished second last year and I think if he has one of his best races, he has a good chance to win,” said Watts, whose team also includes Science Hill alums Malik Gemechu and Noah Charles.

“Malik is kind of a wild card and when he runs well, he can run with anyone up front. Noah Charles has looked as good as anyone on that course in the few times we’ve trained on it,” the coach said.

“I think all three of the local guys really like the course and where they’re hometown guys, they will have a little bit more pride when the race starts.”

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