The collegiate cross-country offseason only lasts three months. For successful programs, like Ball State, that offseason can be even shorter.
Why? Almost all cross-country runners also participate in distance events during the indoor and outdoor track & field seasons. In 2023, the Cardinals captured the Mid-American Conference (MAC) outdoor championship and also saw two of their athletes compete at the NCAA championships.
With the season already underway, the cross-country squad is looking to carry the track and field program’s success from the winter and spring into the fall. Head coach Adrian Wheatley is entering his third year as head coach of the cross-country and track & field programs.
“They understand that this can be done,” he said. “It was really with the same individuals we had, we just shifted the mindset. We shifted [them] to understand you’re running for each other, not just yourself.”
By now, Wheatley has established the culture he wants and said the buy-in from his runners has been a huge reason for that.
“We just figured out it was really important to be team-led, and not individual-led,” Wheatley said. “We really had a clear vision on how we were going to get there; We’re going to do it as a team, and there’s going to be opportunities for people to contribute to the program. We’re going to have peaks, we’re going to have valleys, but together we’re going to do this.”
When a culture that keeps people committed and invested is built, the departure of seniors who come and go after four years leaves a void that needs to be filled, Wheatley said.
The Cardinals are tasked with having to replace four key seniors who have moved on, one of them being Vivian Van Eck. She consistently finished second for the Cardinals last year with times around 22 minutes for the 6k distance. Other departures include Sarah Greer, Juliana Stogsdill and Grace Dean, all of whom were the top six runners for Ball State a year ago.
The good news is the Cardinals are bringing back some of their nucleus from last year, including junior Sarah Mahnensmith, who led the flock for the Cardinals. She’s coming off of a 29th-place finish at the 2022 MAC Championships, where she ran her personal-best time of 21:32.9. Coming into the season, Mahnensmith is confident the new Cardinals coming in are going to make a seamless transition because of the aforementioned culture built into the program.
“A lot of it has been making sure I take them under their wing and letting them know these are the standards we’re going to hit, this is what we want to do, so come with us,” Mahnensmith said. “If you want to be a part of that, you got to put in the work to get there.”
Four freshmen were recruited and signed to start competing for the Cardinals, but they aren’t the only new faces to the Cardinals in 2023. Although she’s been with Ball State since 2021, junior Carly Spletzer missed all of last season due to injury but is extremely eager to be back out on the course this year.
“I want to come back and have a healthy season, and hopefully we place well in the MAC,” Spletzer said.
Spletzer also believes the Cardinals are closely knit, and that bodes well for what they can ultimately accomplish once the season begins.
“Our team is honestly working really well together, honestly better than years past,” Spletzer said. “We have really good team chemistry right now, and a lot of people are motivated and wanting to do well.”
Collegiate cross-country means early morning practices where the athletes need to complete runs that are much longer than their 6k races in order to be ready to compete. They only get to race once every two weeks during the cross-country season.
With only six guaranteed meets on the schedule, most of the time spent in cross country is at practice. Mahnensmith said meets are where the uniqueness and challenges of this sport are highlighted, which makes it all worth it in the end.
“It’s the hills, it’s the uneven terrain. We don’t have the same course. You don’t run the same course twice,” she said. “Making sure that you’re able to adapt to courses [and] to different competition.”
As the Cardinals look to improve upon their ninth-place finish in the MAC and 22nd-place finish at the NCAA Championships a season ago, the ones who are putting it on the line for Wheatley look to continue to push this program in a positive direction. The motivation, along with the fun atmosphere he’s provided, keeps them going.
“He always has these dad quotes that he’s always saying and it's hilarious,” Mahnensmith said. “At MAC [last year] it was like ‘Hay is in the barn. This is the big show, we’re ready for the big show.’”
The “big show” is the code word for the MAC Championship. In pursuit of a championship this season, Wheatley said it’s important to not look at what other teams in the conference are doing.
It’s more about how the Cardinals can improve every single day, and be ready to compete when that time arrives.
“It’s not like other sports where you can call timeout, and you can strategize. I can only worry about the young ladies in our program,” Wheatley said. “The MAC is a solid conference. If we do what we’re supposed to do, then we’re going to be in those conversations also. Everything we do is a dress rehearsal for the big show.”
Their first dress rehearsal came Sept. 1 in the We Fly Challenge 5k, Ball State’s only home meet of the year, where Ball State claimed first place out of three teams competing at the event. The Cardinals were led by junior Shelby Christman who ran a time of 18:12.2, and Mahnensmith who clocked in at 18:43. Spletzer and junior Jessica Velez rounded out the top four for the Cardinals.
After a solid start to the season, the team will run once again Friday, Sept. 15 in Bowling Green, Ohio, for the Mel Brodt Collegiate Open.