BLAZING THEIR TRAIL.
CORVALLIS - Four years ago, the Oregon State women's cross country program returned from a lengthy exile.
They started anew with one coach and one scholarship.
There were no guarantees from the OSU administration that the Beavers would ever broaden their scope beyond those humble beginnings, but that didn't stop head coach Kelly Sullivan from looking to the future.
"I've always believed that you never say never about anything," said Sullivan, from his crowded office on the second floor of Gill Coliseum, which he now shares with three assistants. "Our job in this program is to create an atmosphere where people want to expand things."
So far, so good.
Although they still feel the pangs of discontent among OSU alumni after the school unceremoniously dropped men's and women's track and field and cross country back in 1988 because of budgetary concerns, the Beaver women are doing their best to make Oregon State relevant again.
Their progress can be easily charted on Saturday when OSU plays host to the 2007 Pac-10 cross country championships at Trysting Tree Golf Club. The meet opens at 9:30 a.m. with the men's 8,000-meter race, followed by the women's 6,000-meter competition at 10:30 a.m.
The Beavers finished dead last at the conference meet in their first season back, and climbed to eighth in each of the past two years. This year's goal among the OSU runners is a top-five finish.
"We're on the right path," said Holly Thomson, a junior from Sheldon High School. "We've made huge progress in the two years I've been here. It's cool to be involved in the transition."
The resurrection of the OSU women's program has been a step-by-step process for the 50-year-old Sullivan.
The native of Nehalem, Ore., who has coached at Clackamas Community College (1980-84), Auburn University (1984-96) and Willamette University (1997-2003), always told people that his dream job would be taking over the Beavers if they ever reinstated the program.
During his tenure at Auburn, he knew he didn't want to remain in the deep South for the rest of his life, and when the head coaching job at his alma mater (Willamette) opened up, he jumped at the opportunity to return to Oregon and be close to his elderly parents.
At the time, he figured that would be his final coaching destination.
"I had no plans to go back to Division I," Sullivan said. "The only other option was (the University of) Oregon, so I didn't think I would ever be leaving. When OSU made the announcement, I thought to myself, `How amazing is that?'"
Now, Sullivan's goal is build a solid foundation at OSU so that whoever follows him as head coach will step into a great situation.
There are encouraging signs of progress.
The scholarship allotment has increased each year and now stands at 5.1 out of a possible 18; assistant coach Cynthia Castro is being paid a full-time salary for the first time in four years; the program has two volunteer assistants in Andrew Wartenburg and Geoff Weatherbie, and back-to-back outstanding recruiting classes have brought an influx of talent to Corvallis.
Sullivan said there are no secrets to his coaching methods.
"This is my 27th year of doing this," he said. "It may sound sappy, but I totally believe that if you create an atmosphere where kids feel very much appreciated, and you're there when things go well and not so well, and if you have a remote amount of ability, you can do great things."
One of his proudest moments, to date, came last spring at the OSAA state track and field championships at Hayward Field.
Two of his prized recruits - Sheldon's Casey Masterson and Hermiston's Jennifer Macias - stole the show among female distance runners with sweeps in the 1,500 and 3,000 at the 6A and 5A level, respectively.
"That was a great day for my program," said Sullivan, who then ventured overseas to reel in another talented runner in Melanie Cleland, the national junior road champion from New Zealand, who competed in the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Kenya last March.
Lincoln's Marsha Lampi, who finished second to Masterson in the 3,000 and third in the 1,500, was another high-profile runner to join OSU this fall, and when combined with last year's recruiting class - Krista Stangel of Enterprise, Hayley Oveson of La Grande, Megan Hibner of North Bend and Abby Chesimet of Astoria - the Beavers are obviously headed in the right direction.
The biggest surprise, Sullivan said, was getting Masterson, who also won the 6A state cross country title.
"That was a big decision for Casey," Sullivan said. "If I was a betting man, I would have bet against (her coming to OSU) ... I take that very personal. A lot of these kids are making decisions based on a lot of hope."
Of the 10 runners who will represent OSU at the Pac-10 meet, eight hail from Oregon and only two are seniors. They are all running as fast, or faster, than the Beavers' No. 2 runner from two seasons ago.
"I really like where we're at," Sullivan said. "We're ready to take the next step."
Besides the new crop of talent, there are several kids on the OSU roster who wouldn't have run in college if not for Sullivan.
Aloha's Ashley Younce was plucked from a PE class and, within two years, qualified for the NCAA West Regional in the 5,000, placed fifth in the 10,000 at the Pac-10 meet and set the school 10K record.
In fact, 13 of Sullivan's runners have cracked the all-time top 10 list at OSU in events ranging from the 800 to the 10,000. Junior Sylvia Veal, who didn't even make the Pac-10 cross country squad for the Beavers last season, has emerged as this year's No. 1 runner.
And then there's Holly Thomson.
The Sheldon grad ran 4:53 in the 1,500 as an eighth-grade phenom, and she dreamed of winning a state title at Hayward Field. But Thomson never ran faster in high school and never qualified for the state track meet. When she enrolled at OSU, she had no intentions of running.
The dream had disappeared.
Sullivan was tipped off about Thomson from the Sheldon coaching staff, and when he called to ask if she might show up at the OSU team meeting, she had one question: Why are you interested in me?
"One thing I believe is that talent does not go away," Sullivan said. "Now look at her. She got down to 4:32 last year and made the final of the 1,500 at the Pac-10 meet. For a lot of people, that was not news, but within our program, and for anybody that knows Holly, that was huge news."
By hosting the Pac-10 cross country championships, the Beavers are sending a signal that they are officially back as a viable women's program.
But Sullivan had an ulterior motive.
He wanted to stage an alumni reunion for the more than 1,100 athletes and coaches who have been associated with the history of Oregon State men's and women's track and field and cross country programs, both past and present.
"The only way you can do a reunion is off of an event," Sullivan said. "We're hosting this meet as much, or maybe more, because of that reunion. When the program was dropped in 1988, there was a lot of disenchantment and disconnect, and rightfully so. Part of my job is to get those people back here again."
Once again, Sullivan appears to be treading down the right path.
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|Title Annotation:||Cross Country|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Oct 24, 2007|
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