The Seton Hall cross country team raised the bar in the season-opening Monmouth Kick-off. Led by Jake Simon on the men’s side and Christiana Rutkowski on the women’s, both placed second, one spot higher than their finishes in the same meet last year.
After Monmouth, the Pirates traveled to Stony Brook, where both teams took part in the Wolfie Invitational. Again improving on last year, and again led by Rutkowski and Simon, the women’s team had a first-place finish, while the men’s side captured third in what capped off the best two-meet start for Seton Hall cross country since 2014.
“Going into the first two meets, all of our attitudes and mindsets were in a very positive place,” Rutkowski said. “There is just a very good vibe and energy throughout the team this year.”
That success-inducing atmosphere can be attributed in large part to the wave of newcomers that have come into the program this year, specifically on the women’s side, where five freshman runners have come into the fold.
Collectively, the group’s demeanor in preseason – where the seeds for a successful season are planted – has been a key factor towards the Pirates achieving the early season success that they have.
“Over the course of that entire week and a half [preseason], none of them ever complained or brought negative energy despite how grueling the workouts were.” Rutkowski said. “They all were very open-minded and respectful of all of us. They were willing to put in the work and you could tell they wanted to be here with us.”
It was no different for Brandon Guerrera; the lone incoming runner on a men’s team that said goodbye to five seniors at the end of last year.
The reality of running minus four runners has meant an increased responsibility for each runner in what is still an upperclassmen-based men’s team, something which the team has accepted and used to its benefit.
“We lost five seniors, and they were a great energy to the team,” Simon said. “So [this year] it’s a little smaller, a little tighter knit, and I think that’s great. We all push each other, we’re all in a tight pack. We’re not really having eight in one pack, six in another, four in another. We have two solid groups, an A group and a B group, and we all push each other to do well.”
Inside that A group is Simon, competing in his final season of competitive cross country, something he has done since fifth grade. And in this final season, Simon has changed around his diet and even given up coffee, to make the most out of quite literally his final run. So far, with a first ever collegiate top finish, it’s safe to say the discipline is paying off.
Rutkowski, still with one more year of eligibility due to redshirting her sophomore year, is looking to have the type of season that keeps her in the conversation for running beyond college. For her, a benchmark to achieving that would be finishing top-25 in the Big East Tournament come the end of October.
“I really want to be a threat to those who I, right now, consider my idols. I want to line up next to them and be able to run with them, not behind them, in the Big East Conference,” Rutkowski said.
Despite the season just kicking off two weekends ago, the end and a chance to compete in the Big East Tournament is only four regular season meets and a little over a month’s time away. For a sport based in long distance, the season for these two cross country sides is very much a sprint. That sprint will continue this weekend, on Sept. 16, at the NYIT Invitational.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on twitter @JamesJusticeIII