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Once in a Blue (and Gold) Moon: ETSU hosts SoCon XC Championships Saturday

Tanner Cook • Oct 30, 2019 at 12:00 PM

For the first time in 51 years, an NCAA Division I conference cross country championship will make Johnson City home for one day when East Tennessee State hosts the Southern Conference meet on Saturday at Pine Oaks Golf Course.

The women’s race will begin at 10 a.m. and the men take the course at 10:45 a.m. There is no entry fee for the general public.

The last and only time ETSU hosted a conference cross country meet was in 1968, when the Ohio Valley Conference was held at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“There’s a lot of ETSU tradition in the Southern Conference and they’ve had a lot of success through the years while competing in this conference,” ETSU head coach George Watts said. “I’ve been really looking forward to this year for a while because I knew this was when we were scheduled to host the meet. We were never going to turn down the opportunity to host a conference championship.”

SPECIAL WEEKEND FOR ALUMS

The weekend is made even more special as it marks homecoming for ETSU and Watts says that there will be plenty of alums in attendance.

“PJ and Ed Leddy are coming in. PJ lives in Ireland and is coming with his wife. Ed lives in Nashville, so it will be good to see them come up,” Watts said. “Rick Patterson is coming in and so is Mark Finucane, who lives here locally. Dennis Stark came in from Canada the other night. On the women’s side, Linda Preston from Canada is coming down. We’ve got some others coming in, so the alumni and All-American presence will be strong on Saturday.”

LONG AND STORIED TRADITION

ETSU has had numerous NCAA All-Americans through the years, beginning in the early 1970s when legendary head coach Dave Walker had a pipeline of recruits coming from Ireland.

The “Irish Brigade” achieved one of ETSU’s greatest athletic highs when the team was runner-up in the 1972 NCAA Championships in Houston — Tennessee won by six points — and Neil Cusack claimed the individual national championship in a time of 28:23 for six miles.

It was the only year that Oregon phenom Steve Prefontaine did not run cross country because he had competed in the Munich Olympics just a few months prior to the meet.

“To me, this means everything in the world,” Watts said. “I’ve always been a conference guy and as an athlete, the conference meet was always the biggest race of your college career, unless you were fortunate enough to make it to the national meet. As a team, the conference meet was where it was at. It was the thing you remembered most as a team.

“I’ve talked to our athletes about taking advantage of this opportunity. It’s on a course that we’ve been training on and no one else has, and we have a lot of alumni in town. We hope to have pretty good local crowd as well.”

THE COURSE

The course at Pine Oaks will utilize the front nine with the best viewing spots being on the second and fifth tees. The course will be spectator-friendly and patrons will be able to see the runners multiple times before the finish line. The men will run 8-kilometers (4.96 miles) while the women will run 5K.

The course is one big loop that will be traversed fully twice by the women and three times by the men. Both races will have a little over 1,000 meters to the finish line once the race passes by the start line for the final time.

“It has been great to work the Pine Oaks Golf Course people like Bryan Bentley and the advisory board. They have been really helpful to us and I want to thank them,” Watts said. “The University Parkway Baptist Church and Scott Thompson have also been great helping us out with parking.”

Spectator parking will be in both parking lots at the University Parkway Baptist Church along with the “front yard” to be used for overflow. The upper parking lot at Pine Oaks will be closed to the public.

“I had to go out there probably 20 different times to fine tune everything on the course,” Watts said. “At my previous school, we hosted NCAA Championships and NCAA Regionals, so I’m kind of picky and particular about things. I was out there again just this morning one more time, measuring so that I had everything accurate.

“The course is going to be both rolling and flat. I could have made it tougher, but I was worried about all the downhill running that we would have to do to make it tougher. There aren’t any long hills in it, but this will definitely be a challenge.”

RARE OPPORTUNITY

For the two seniors on the team — Mia DePillo on the women’s side and Adam Bradtmueller for the men — it’s a rare opportunity to run at home and Watts wants them to take advantage of it.

“Mia actually graduates this fall, so I think it’s pretty neat that her during her last season that she gets to run a cross country meet at home,” Watts said. “I know Adam wants to do well because he’s talked about it. He wants this to be the best conference championship he’s ever had.”

There are also several locals on the men’s and women's team for ETSU who want to defend home turf and make the Buccaneers contenders on Saturday. Former Daniel Boone standout Ben Varghese highlights the local contingent as he looks to make a return trip the NCAA Championships in November.

“Ben finished second last year and I think if he has one of his best races, he has a good chance to win,” Watts said. “Malik (Gemechu) is kind of a wild card and when he runs well, he can run with anyone up front. Noah Charles has looked as good as anyone on that course in the few times we’ve trained on it. I think all three of the local guys really like the course and where they’re hometown guys, they will have a little bit more pride when the race starts.”

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