Akouris: USF runners fight the odds, adversity
by tina akouris firstname.lastname@example.org December 16, 2012 10:26PM
Plainfield South graduate Jake Ferris and his St. Francis teammates won the NAIA national title last month.
Updated: January 18, 2013 6:12AM
Jake Ferris was seriously thinking about not returning to the cross-country team at the University of St. Francis this season.
Phil Rizzo, a senior, hadn’t even run a five-minute mile until he got to USF.
And coach Jeff Barker was hired at USF only about a week before camp began Aug. 11, replacing Drew Ludtke who left for Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
To hear the team tell it, it’s a wonder they had any success at all this season. But they did, winning the NAIA national title in Vancouver, Wash., last month. It was the school’s first national title in any sport since the baseball team won the NAIA championship under Gordie Gillespie in 1993.
Now, every time one of them goes to USF’s Sullivan Center, they’ll see a banner honoring their national title, which went up right around Thanksgiving.
“We represented the school and ourselves and where we came from,” junior Dylan Reyes said. “We see that banner up and we see all that we put into this program, with all the struggles and how it all paid off.”
Besides Rizzo’s status as an All-American, and the Fighting Saints’ No. 1 runner in the lineup, perhaps the more significant stories are the ones that Ferris and Barker like to tell.
Ferris decided to come to camp after all and give Barker’s training and coaching philosophies a shot. But it almost came at a price.
“He was so far behind,” Barker said. “Everyone else had already done about 100 miles at camp and he did only 30. He was our fifth man and he got to be in a good position (in the lineup).”
Ferris admits that the Saints’ coaching change was the biggest hurdle to him returning for his junior season. There were personal issues too, he said, but Barker’s arrival was key.
“With Drew leaving, I felt like there were some doors open and some opportunities I could take,” Ferris said. “If I wasn’t running, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Throughout the season, Barker’s runners were banged up, some more so than others. Ferris was one, Reyes had inflamed tendons in his right knee, All-American junior Mike Blaszczyk had a hip problem and freshman Brandon Carson developed an ankle problem late in the season — but he ran anyway because he figured it was too late to stop.
And during the national championship meet, Rizzo did what any runner should never do.
“I panicked at the start because where we were, we all got boxed in,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t one of those seasons where a team wins a championship and they just roll through. We weren’t (winning) until October or November. The season was an uphill battle.”
Besides beating two of the best teams in NAIA in Southern Oregon and Oklahoma Baptist in the championship meet, the Saints also finished ahead of some bigger Division I programs throughout the year: Eastern Illinois, Bradley, Illinois State, Illinois, Marquette and Mississippi.
The program has only been around since 2007, and other programs on the USF campus are asking Barker and his runners how they did it — and the answer is quite simple.
“We’re not afraid of anybody,” Barker said. “We don’t care who you are, because you’re going to have to work really hard to beat us.”