They wake up every morning before the sun rises, they run eight to ten miles outdoors, they spend hours in training, and they are a highly motivated group of young men, working together as a team, with a common goal.
This conjures up images of the U.S. Army, but it’s the men’s cross country team at The University of Texas at Tyler that fits this description equally well – and their dedication and sacrifices are paying off in a big way.
The team that has been a relative secret thus far, with their successes only known to the UT Tyler community (and of course their unfortunate opponents), may be loosing their anonymity as they continue to out-perform each week.
This week the team turned heads when the well-respected organization TXRunning.com ranked the Patriots as the fourth best men’s cross country team in Texas as part of their 2006 Texas College Top 20. The rankings, which span all NCAA divisions, placed UT Tyler ahead of schools like TCU, Texas State, Stephen F. Austin and others. The only schools ranking above the Patriots were Division I powers UT El Paso, Texas A&M and Sam Houston State.
The ranking was prompted by the fact that UT Tyler is a perfect three-for-three on the year. The Patriots have won, by sizeable margins, all three meets in which they have competed so far this season.
The seventeen-member team has earned the respect of their opponents and the competition agrees that UT Tyler is the team to beat in the American Southwest Conference. But when it comes to analyzing the squad’s performance, there seems to be no single key to UT Tyler’s success.
In any college sport, winning begins with recruiting and when third-year head coach Bob Hepler looks for student-athletes to come run for him at UT Tyler, his main focus is on the mindset of prospective athletes, not necessarily their physical ability.
“I look for athletes who actually enjoy running. If they love the sport, the sky is the limit,” he says about his prospects.
That love of the sport is exactly the philosophy sophomore runner Ben Donnan, a Paris, Texas native, has about his running.
“I enjoy running because of the feeling of accomplishment I get after having a good race or workout. This feeling makes it well worth waking up at 6:30 a.m., five mornings a week and then going out and giving it my all at our meets on Saturday mornings. My days would never be as good as they are if it was not for my morning runs”
Hepler’s recruiting savvy has obviously been fruitful. He has recruited three of the top 25 runners in Texas including Donnan (13th), Warren Brown (21st), R.J. Cowan and (25th).
According to Hepler, it is a given that each is a strong runner, but it is their different strengths that are helping them succeed.
“R.J., Ben and Warren are three very different types of athletes who excel in different situations. Ben is hard to beat on a flat, fast course. Warren excels on the hills and is incredibly tough. RJ has speed and good strength on the hills.”
Individually, UT Tyler has won the top two spots in each of their three races this season and, in what is no surprise to the team, a different runner has won each race.
“We are all very competitive and are always looking to improve,” said Donnan.
Brown, a sophomore from Lindale, Texas, led the team to its first win of the season at the Texas Lutheran meet with a time of 27:13 for the 8K course. The next week, Donnan set a new school record with a 26:07 finish when the team returned home for the UT Tyler Invitational. Most recently, Cowan finished first at the Dallas Baptist Invitational with a 27:06 mark.
Overall the Patriots have won a combined 16 of the top 30 spots, finishing with five or more runners in the top ten of each meet. Besides Cowan, Donnan and Brown, others on the team also have the ability to win says Hepler.
“I wouldn't be surprised if we have one or two other guys win a race this year. We are very deep.”
Brown strongly agrees with his coach.
“We support each other more than any other team I have participated on. We really are a team and we encourage instead of bragging or letting pride get in the way. Virtually everyone one the team is capable of beating anyone else on it and that is what makes it fun.”
The members of the team also spur each other. Brown draws motivation and thinks highly of the dedication of fellow runner and Longview native Chauncey Deller.
“Chauncey works harder than probably anyone on the team. I went from being a very average runner to cracking into the top five over the past two years since he started running in 2004. He probably works out...running, biking, swimming, weights, yoga...for three or four hours a day.”
Hepler believes that part of the team’s success this year is based on the fact that he has set a strong schedule to push his veteran runners. The challenge of running against their teammates is also a dynamic at work for the Patriots.
“They realize that I've made the schedule tougher this season. Each week we run against individuals and teams who can and should beat us. I'm hoping that this strategy simply makes them stronger as we prepare for nationals-level competition. The guys also love competing against each other. They know that each week that there will be six to ten of their teammates competing for the top spots in the race.”
In addition to drawing on their teammates for encouragement, the Patriots look to the top for inspiration. The members of the team are universal in their agreement that Hepler, whom they all call Bob, is a motivation as both a coach and an individual.
Donnan, the highest ranked runner on the team, has trouble defining exactly what it is about Hepler that gives the team success, but he knows its there.
“Honestly, I don't know specifically what he does to make the team run so well, but whatever it is, it works. For me, it is the respect that I have for Bob that makes me want to work so hard.”
Junior Corey Kellam thinks it may be a function of Hepler’s personality and his desire for his runners to become good people.
“Bob is willing to work with individuals. He doesn't see one way as the right way for the whole team. Bob is patient and is willing to listen to his athletes. He doesn't just want us to be fast runners, rather he pushes us to develop our minds, personal values and beliefs so that we may become contributing individuals to society.”
In May, Hepler was named to the USA Triathlon’s All-American team for the eighth time after competing in four triathlons over the previous year and winning three of them – brining his total number of triathlon wins to over 40. If that isn’t enough, he is a seven-time member of the Amateur U.S. National Triathlon Team and has competed in the Ironman World Championships seven times.
“Bob is the best coach I have run for,” says Brown. “His excellence in running and triathlons gives the team a great deal of respect for him. I enjoy his very approachable and flexible coaching style that caters to each runner as an individual.”
In the end, Hepler returns to his original thought that his team is successful because they enjoy what they are doing, be it coming to the University every day at 7 a.m. for practice, or competing against tough opponents on a hilly course in central Texas. A health dose of adventurism doesn’t seem to hurt either.
“The runners love to run. They are scientists and their bodies are the lab. Each new workout and each new race deepens their knowledge of running. Each of them feels that they are boldly going where no man has gone before.”
With three meets under their belts and four more remaining, Hepler sees the team continuing to develop, both as runners and as individuals.
“I expect that they will continue to grow as runners and as people. These are good young people who happen to run fast. It's awesome to see them run faster each week. It is even better to see them grow in to great adults. These young people are thoughtful, funny, spiritual and most of all selfless. It's truly amazing to see them grow up before my eyes.”