Putting the team back into Cambrian cross country

For the first time in a handful of years, Cambrian College can lay claim to fielding cross-country teams. This might come as a surprise to casual fans of the sport, who recall that the Golden Shield currently boasts back to back OCAA women’s champions in the form of Mary Strain(2016) and Emily Marcolini (2015).

Unfortunately, recent years have seen coach and accomplished alumnus Eric Leishman work with his runners almost as one-offs, with no real team strategy required in his pre-race meetings, given that Cambrian did not have the minimum of four runners required to formulate a team entry, either with their male or female contingent of athletes.

It’s a different story in 2017, however, with two distinctly different squads hoping to take a shot at nationals. The women’s team is nothing if not “top heavy”, as both Strain and Marcolini are back in the fold, running together for the very first time.

And while both enter the season with legitimate podium potential, at very least on a provincial scale, they also kick off the new campaign with vastly different perspectives. As of the beginning of August, Strain was earmarked for the Laurentian Voyageurs team, an option that was altered for key academic reasons.

“Two weeks before school began, I was accepted into Cambrian’s Nursing program, and that was my number one choice,” she noted after practice last week. “I needed to go with academics over athletics.” Thankfully, she was entering the new year intent on building on a silver medal performance at the CCAA championships last November.

“I was so excited because of the results from last year,” she said. “I put more training in this summer than I did last summer, so coming into the season, I’m feeling fit and more confident than I did at the beginning of last season.”

That was evident, right out of the gate, as Strain recorded a win in her first race of the year, placing first at the Fanshawe Invitational a few weeks back. “The first three kilometers were painful and at one point, I shook my head “no” to (assistant coach) Sebastian (Diebel),” recalled Strain. “It just felt like it wasn’t clicking.”

“But with 1.5 kilometers to go, I dug deep and said to myself that I needed to give myself a chance, that if I didn’t go right now, I would be disappointed because I had more in the tank. I broke into a new gear that I don’t know if I have ever reached before and was able to pass the lead girl.”

That type of push is exactly what appealed to Marcolini, the St Benedict Catholic Secondary School graduate who remains a competitive cyclist, first and foremost, having participated in the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg over the summer.

“If Mary wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be running,” conceded the soon-to-be 22 year old. “I actually didn’t even decide I was going to run again until the beginning of September.” That said, it’s amazing what the training regimen required to be one of the top female U23 cyclists in the country can do in providing a base to a solid cross country campaign.

“Surprisingly, I actually feel pretty good – a little tired from the summer of cycling, but starting to feel pretty good” said Marcolini. “I think that you’re able to build more of a base when you’re cycling, because there’s not as much pounding. It’s not as hard on your body, and I think that helps.”

And where Marcolini was clearly pretty much a lone wolf during her inaugural journey to OCAA gold two years ago, the road this fall includes at least one familiar running companion. “It’s really good to have somebody to push myself against at practices and stuff,” she said. “I haven’t raced against Mary this year, but I think we both have a shot at doing very well, so it’s definitely motivating.”

The Cambrian men’s contingent, by contrast, will be marked by greater depth right through their roster. Both Shawn Belanger and Erich Mundt cracked the top twenty at the season opening race in London, while the trio of Gergely Szabo, Kevin Jeanveau and Haydn Lothian are all anxious to prove that a committed stretch of training can pay dividends by the time the OCAA finals roll around at the end of October.

“The training is going very well and I’m pretty focused,” suggested Bélanger, a graduate of Ecole Sacré Coeur in Sudbury. “I’m definitely where I want to be. I’ve been surprised by just how much this amount of training helps. It helps so much compared to the training I was doing in high school.”

“I notice it in my times, and how I feel during the runs. I’ll be six kilometers in and feel a lot better than I normally would.” Where Bélanger is making the jump to the post-secondary ranks directly on the heels of a very successful final year of high school athletics with the Griffons, Lothian has opted to continue his pursuit of a degree in power engineering following a four year absence, with travelling, professional motor-cross and work on the railways all in the mix since the time he halted his studies a few years back.

Interestingly enough, it’s his love of motor-cross that drives his desire to run. “Riding off road bikes is one of the most strenuous sports I know,” said the 22 year old long-time resident of Balsam Lake, just north of Lindsay. “I do thirty minute motos and it’s an all-out sprint, the whole way, so I kind of train according to that.”

“Given my training for pro motor-cross in the summer, this works great with that training,” Lothian continued. “I didn’t think I would be up in the mix with the guys, but apparently, I am. It’s nice to have that team aspect, working hard with everyone and trying to push.”

In the realm of the Cambrian cross-country program, that team aspect, in fact, has been a most welcomed return.