BY: DAVID LEFKOWITZ
Though by no means one of our most heavily spectated sports, William & Mary’s Track, Field, & Cross Country teams have quietly been among the most high-performing sports in the school’s history. The programs are, in a word, prestigious. Since the early 1960s, Tribe Track & Field has appeared in 35 NCAA national championships and produced 7 sub-4 milers, 2 NCAA individual champions (Hal Michael in the indoor mile and Reggie Clark in the indoor half-mile), an AIAW national champ (Jeri Daniels in the shot put), an Olympian (1500m runner Brian Hyde), a handful of professionals (including Adidas sponsored Elaina Balouris Tabb, who just finished 2 nd American at the 2021 Boston Marathon), and a Netflix talk show host (comedian Michelle Wolf was a high jumper for W&M). Between 1997 and 2010, our Men’s Cross Country team made it to Nationals every single year, and in 2009 they placed 5th in the nation.
In recent years, however, the program has gone through a bit of a rough patch. We haven’t made it to Nationals in a while, and though we remain a dominant force in the CAA, we aren’t quite the absolute powerhouse we were, say a decade ago. Some of this is simply par for the course. Even the most legendary of programs has its ebbs and its flows, periods of transition and of reconstruction. W&M’s current head coach, Forest Braden, arrived in the Fall of 2018, taking over from Chris Solinksy. Though Solinky’s own running career is the stuff of legend (5-time NCAA champ, several sub-13 5ks, first non African born man to break 27 minutes in the 10,000m, et cetera et cetera), his tenure as the head coach of W&M’s Track and Cross Country teams was short and relatively unremarkable.
Coach Braden’s time at W&M so far has been tumultuous, however, and by no fault of his own. After a very solid 2018-2019 season, the 2019 cross country season and (early) 2020 indoor season gave the impression that Tribe track was poised to break back into national-level competition. After both cross country teams placed 12th at Regionals, early track season suggested the team was already on quite an upward trajectory. At the IC4A championships in early March, Junior JP Trojan won two titles (running 8:03 in the 3000m and 13:48 in the 5000m), and Taylor Jones finished second in the 1000m final with a 2:49.30 performance. Then (and I don’t know if you heard about this) a global pandemic shut down the world. It also ended the 2020 indoor track season, cancelled the outdoor season entirely, and postponed the Fall cross country until the Winter & Spring of 2021. Despite this, or perhaps in spite of it, the team kept putting in hard work through the Summer and into the Fall. Then, in September of 2020, in a Zoom meeting with the school athletic department, they were blindsided with the news that the men’s teams – both Cross Country and Track & Field – would be cut at the end of the Spring season. The women’s team, in an act of inspiring solidarity, released a statement on October 25, 2020 pledging not to compete for the school until the men’s team was reinstated.
Staring down the barrel of losing their athletic future at William & Mary, the team had an understandably difficult Spring season. Probably the program’s lowest point in recent memory came on March 5, 2021, when the men’s cross country team came second in the CAA championship, breaking a historic 20-year win streak. It was, by all accounts, a dark period for Tribe Track & Field.
But a valley’s nothing more than the space between mountains. Just six days after the heartbreak of CAAs, things started shifting again, this time for the better. On March 11, 2021, President Katherine Rowe announced that Tribe Track & Field was back for good. Momentum, now, was back on their side, and momentum – as any runner will tell you – is a wonderful thing to have. In the outdoor track season that Spring, as if to prove they couldn’t be kept down, William & Mary athletes gave several performances that would have been impressive even if not for the last year of turmoil and uncertainty. Spencer Tsai, for example, ran 14:38 for the 5000m and 29:52 for the 10,000m, and then-Freshman Jackson Cooley ran 10.83 for the 100m. Mary Gregory dropped a 55.40 400m to win CAAs as a Freshman, and Taylor Jones ran 2:11 in the 800m. Things, it had to be said, were looking up for W&M Track & Field.
It was this momentum that carried the team through the 2021-2022 seasons. In the Fall, the men’s team took back their CAA cross country title, the beginning of what I imagine will be yet another historic win streak. The indoor and outdoor track seasons continued this steady, if incremental, progress. The Men’s and Women’s teams finished 14 of 44 and 9 of 39, respectively, at indoor IC4As this winter, and the women took 5th out of 36 at IC4A outdoors (though the men, unfortunately, would end up 30 th ). Did some magic switch flip and hurl us back onto the national caliber overnight? No. But step after step is being taken in the right direction, and momentum, it’s clear to see, is on our side.
So where, now in the Summer of 2022, does Tribe XCTF find itself? It is emerging, it seems to me, from a period of rebuilding. After several years of keeping their heads down and putting in work despite the chaos around them, W&M runners will be heading into the 2022 cross country season with talented roster and a chip on their shoulders.
Last season’s rosters, both the Men’s and the Women’s, were overwhelmingly dominated by Freshmen and Sophomores. With the departure of longtime team members like Ryan McCracken (who graduated in the Fall), Johnny Rogers and Taylor Jones (both of whom now run for UVA), and now of fifth-year standout Spencer Tsai, it is these underclassmen to whom the future of this team falls. That being said, we’re in good hands: distance specialists like Jacob Jones, Kyra Holland, and Sam Pritchard have proven themselves to be talented, driven, and gritty as hell – a dangerous combination in a distance runner. First-year competitor Ariana DeBoer and the Lipps brothers (Owen’s a Freshman and Tyler’s a Sophomore) have also shown themselves to be capable in everything from the 800m to the 5000m, while Jackson Cooley keeps the short sprints locked down and Decathlete Daniel Layton remains solid in… well… everything. Meanwhile, Sophomore thrower Kristen Herr punched her ticket to NCAA Regionals this Spring in the Javelin throw, launching it over 45 meters at the CAA championship meet in Boston.
So, I ask again, what is the state of Tribe Track & Field right now? The state of
the program is strong, and more than anything it’s promising. I, for one, can’t wait for
cross country season.
LET’S GO TRIBE.