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November 16, 2012

Hokies leave the field behind

By: Jimmy Robertson

Will MulherinThanks in large part to Will Mulherin’s first-place finish, the Virginia Tech men’s cross country team won its first ACC championship and its first conference title since 1997

To gain an appreciation for just how much Will Mulherin loves Virginia Tech, one only needs to consider this:

A fan of the school since he was 3, the young man applied for early decision to Virginia Tech in high school (and was accepted). He planned on following in his parents’ and brother’s footsteps and coming to Tech, never once thinking about what the future might hold for him in his beloved sport of cross country.

“Coach [Ben] Thomas called me up and said, ‘You’re coming here. Do you want to run cross country?’” Mulherin said. “I always joke that I came up on a visit only to make sure the guys on the team weren’t jerks. Because if they were, I wasn’t going to run. I’d just come here for school.”

“Good thing he liked the guys,” Thomas laughed in response.


Mulherin, a redshirt senior from Yorktown, Va., became a part of Tech cross country history after he won the individual title at the ACC Cross Country Championships held Oct. 27 at the Hokies’ home course on campus. Behind Mulherin and two other runners who finished in the top seven, the Tech men’s team claimed its first ACC team title with 55 points, six clear of second-place and in-state rival Virginia.

Mulherin became the ninth men’s runner at Tech to win a conference championship, the first to win an ACC individual title and the first Tech runner to win a conference title since 1999 when Chris Seaton won the Atlantic 10’s individual crown. The men’s team championship, its 13th overall, marked Tech’s first since 1997 when the Hokies won the second of back-to-back team titles while in the Atlantic 10.

“I went into the day thinking we had about a 50 percent chance,” Mulherin said. “If we ran a great race and everything fell our way, we’d get it. But there were teams out there that were really good – UVa, Florida State, Duke, NC State. They were all really good teams. I was confident, but I was worried. I didn’t want to be overconfident.

“I know a lot of guys were confident. They were saying, ‘When we win the ACCs, it’s going to be great.’ I was like, ‘If, guys, if. Let’s not be overconfident.’ But I knew if we were going to do it, this was going to be the year, and I really didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I think a lot of people on the team felt that way.”

Tech won the team title because it attacked right from the start. The Hokies wanted to stay with the lead pack through the first three quarters of the race and then take advantage of the hilly part of the course toward the end. The last kilometer of the course features hills, and the Hokies figured opposing runners would fade in that stretch.

The strategy worked out perfectly, as Mulherin burst from the pack in the final kilometer. He set a course record with a time of 23 minutes, 37.3 seconds. Florida State’s Breandan O’Neill finished second, five seconds behind Mulherin.

“I’m not a person who runs from the gun, puts a gap on everyone and wins the race,” Mulherin said. “I’ve never been able to do that. I just planned on hanging with the group and seeing if I could pull away from there. I tend to pull away at the end, not the beginning.

“I was hoping I’d have an advantage on the hills because I’ve run them more often, and so I hit the bottom of the first hill, and at the bottom, I told myself that I was going to hit those hills harder than I’ve ever hit them before. I didn’t want to have any energy left. I wanted to stumble into the finish line. As I went up the hill, I felt everyone else fall back, and that’s when I knew it would work out.”

“We were either going to win or go home,” Thomas said. “We weren’t going to try and come from off the pace. We were going to dictate the pace, and that’s tough to do on a course that’s challenging.

“The kids, they were all in with that. Let’s roll the dice and take the race to them, and if we lose, so be it. At least we gave it our best shot.”

Mulherin got plenty of help from his teammates, including unexpected high finishes from sophomores Brayden Burleigh and Thomas Curtin. Burleigh took sixth with a time of 23:54.7 and Curtin came in right behind him, running the course in 23:56.3. Both finished with times under 24 minutes for the first time in their careers, and both earned All-ACC honors, along with Mulherin. Redshirt senior Michael Hammond came in at 19th, while junior Leoule Degfae took 22nd, rounding out Tech’s top five.

The team victory was an improbable one for the Hokies. After all, both Florida State and Duke entered the competition ranked 14th and 18th, respectively, and a year ago, NC State claimed its second crown in three years and 16th overall a year ago. But Tech’s home course knowledge and a surprisingly large and boisterous crowd helped them overcome any talent deficiencies.

“We’ve been in the ballpark before,” Thomas said. “We’ve been third. We’ve been fourth. But we’ve never had a solid race through five guys. You have to be good enough so that you don’t have to have a perfect race from all five guys. You have to be strong enough that you have five guys just all having good races and still win. We had a little more than that, but that’s the kind of depth you need and this is the first year we’ve had that. So yeah, until you win one, it seems like a big obstacle there.”

The team victory was also a sweet one for Thomas, who took over as the head of Tech’s cross country and distance programs in 2001. Two years ago, the 1992 graduate of Tech came up with the idea of redshirting both Mulherin and Hammond, while Degfae sat out after transferring from Tennessee. Thomas foresaw this year’s team, with those three in the lineup, as having a great opportunity at making a run at the ACC title.

“It’s a plan that really started three years ago when we redshirted Will and Michael and Lee [Degfae] to give those guys two years together to put ourselves in position to win an ACC title,” Thomas said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment for this group considering where they came from. They weren’t bad runners in high school, but when you look at what the ACC brings in terms of talent and you go into a meet and you’re off a little bit, then you’re fourth or fifth. You really have to nail it and have a little bit of luck.

“Then doing it at home, it really was the perfect storm. Guys ran tough and aggressive, and other teams ran well, too. That’s what I’m proud of. They didn’t run bad races. We just took their best shot and were able to do it. I’m very excited for the group and very proud of them.”

On the women’s side of the ledger, the Tech team finished 10th with 260 points. Florida State won the team title with 35 points, while Duke finished in second with 67 points. Florida State’s Violah Lagat won the individual crown in a time of 20:00.1.

The Hokies’ top finisher was junior Alex Watt, who came in 40th place with a time of 21:48.3. Sophomore Sarah Rapp finished 51st, while freshmen Hannah Gray, Lauren Jaeger and Katherine Sheridan finished 53rd, 55th, and 83rd, respectively.

Next up for Tech is the Southeast Regional to be run Nov. 9 in Charlotte. If the men’s team qualifies, it will go to the NCAA’s national meet held Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky.

In the meantime, as he and the Hokies prepare, Thomas plans on keep the gigantic ACC team championship trophy firmly on his desk for all to see.

“Until someone comes and takes it away,” Thomas said when asked how long the trophy will sit there. “I’m not going to lie. It feels super good. We have a chance to be a wrap-around Triple Crown, after winning outdoors in the spring [the ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships] and now cross country, and we should have a strong team indoors this year. There would be no better way for these seniors to go out than to do that.

“So I’m going to keep this one [the trophy] here until we get the next one.”