At a time when most college students are reaching for the snooze alarm, the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s cross country team is just finishing the most important part of their day.
Under the guidance of third-year head coach Chris Highfield, the Eagles are taking advantage of the quiet, early-morning hours on campus to make tremendous strides to improve on last year’s results. With daily practices that begin no later than 6 a.m., a tough and talented eight-member Eagles squad has made a commitment to train with a blue-collar mentality. They push each other every day, whether it’s a 5 a.m. track workout or a normal training run around the scenic FGCU campus. It’s a consistent approach that the Eagles hope will produce consistent results when they begin their six-meet regular season schedule.
“Short-term we need to consistently make progress and improve as individuals and as a team,” said Highfield, who also serves as head coach for the FGCU women’s team. “However, this year I feel we have put in place a solid team. Talent and depth-wise this is the best overall men’s team we have had.”
While the depth and talent level has increased since a year ago, only two of the top-seven runners from a year ago return for this fall. Sophomore team captain Edison Vasquez (Naples High) who set school records for both 5-K and 8-K a year ago, joins senior Chris Hernandez (Cape Coral Mariner) as the lone returnees. Two upperclassmen, Franco Mata, a senior who competed in tennis for FGCU, and Manny Rodrigues (Naples Barron Collier), a junior, are both first-year runners competing for top-five positions on the team.
“Edison had an unbelievable summer both in the weight room and out on the roads to get stronger and increase his mileage,” said Highfield. “He is making the commitment to take himself and our program to the next level. Franco and Manny are first year runners who are running well. And Chris is our team leader who brings valuable experience to the team.”
It’s a highly touted freshman class that has Highfield optimistic about the future of the program. With so many new faces, the newcomers will be counted on heavily to bring a competitive attitude to every practice and meet. Each member of the freshmen class will have an immediate opportunity to contribute to team scoring. Rob Clendening (New Port Richey) and Bryan Spiewak (Coral Springs) are battling for the number three spot on the team behind Vasquez and Matta. Lyle Edixon (Naples Gulf Coast) and Ronald Gilles (Naples Lely) have also looked impressive in pre-season time trials and are expected to be in the mix every weekend.
“Our first priority during the past off-season was to recruit and replenish our roster”, said Highfield. “We have brought in a tough, talented and consistent group that wants to be here and help build our program for the future”.
For the first time in the program’s history, FGCU will have an opportunity to compete in NCAA Division II at the national level. Cross-country is unique in regards to post-season competition. Both teams and individuals can qualify for regional and national meets.
“In the program’s short history, we certainly have had some great individual runners,” said Highfield. “We are striving to send our team to the NCAA regional meet in Memphis in November. I would like to think that if our entire team does not qualify that we would have some individuals eligible to compete.”