The University at Buffalo men's cross country team experienced a breakthrough last season, finishing with its highest rankings ever in the Mid-American Conference and NCAA regionals. Now the Bulls want to build on those achievements.
On Saturday UB, currently ranked 12th in the Northeast Region, won the UB Stampede Invittiona; at Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island.
The Bulls women's team finished third in the five-team field. Shelby Janutol, racing in her first meet with the Bulls after three seasons at Division III Ferris State, was UB's top finisher while completing the course in 18:08.1.
The UB men opened the season two weeks ago at Colgate's Harry Lang Invitational and finished fourth behind Syracuse, Navy and 2011 Patriot League runner-up American in the final team standings.
"It was an exciting time for us to see our team come into the regionally ranked scene and be a prominent team in the Mid-American Conference," Bulls coach Vicki Mitchell said. "I think it set a new level of expectation for them this season."
The Bulls are young after losing four seniors from a year ago. The roster features 12 freshmen, one senior and two juniors but a winning culture has been established and a drop-off isn't anticipated.
"We'd like to do as well as we did last year,'' said junior Zach Ahart, who finished second on Saturday in 25:19.2 for the 8K course, 20 seconds behind Colgate's Christopher Johnson, who claimed individual honors. "We've got a lot of talent on our team and a lot of new talented freshmen who are ready to step it up. It's going to take a lot of effort but I think we're on the rise.''
Indeed, coming into the 2011 season, there wasn't much expected from the Bulls but observers took notice when they jumped from fifth to third in the nine-team MAC, UB's highest finish ever.
The Bulls took another major step by finishing seventh in the Northeast Region Championship last November ahead of established powers like Cornell, Boston University, Yale and Boston College.
"A lot of people turned their heads,'' said Todd Witzleben, UB's middle distance coach, who also oversees the men's team. "It created some energy and excitement around the program.''
It started with a subtle philosophy shift by Mitchell and the hiring of Witzleben, a graduate of Orchard Park High School. Mitchell shifted focus to peaking late in the season and using earlier meets for training .
"You race tired [early] but we still expect you to compete," she said. "That's what we're teaching them in these early meets, 'You're going to be tired, but you compete against your competition.' When you get to the end of the season, you're training will be that you're feeling strong and you're ready to race so both physically and mentally everything is coming together."
Saturday's UB Stampede was used for development of the younger runners. Freshmen Cameron Bruce finished 11th in 25:45.3, Austin Coneys 13th in 25:49.7 and Brian Crimmins in 24:54.6.
"If we can maintain where we were last year, next year the goal is to win a conference championship," Witzleben said. "The guys know they're on a longer term mission. We have to think long term with our training and racing philosophy."
Prior to coming to UB, Witzleben spent three years at La Salle as an assistant coach and also served on the coaching staffs at Temple and The College of New Jersey. Mitchell credits Witzleben for helping the runners buy into a new training regime but it was at La Salle where he earned his reputation as a recruiter.
"The energy, the way he spoke on the phone, made me exited to run," said Coneys, who's from Centerport. "I think that's what got all the freshmen here. We have a lot of good freshmen coming up. I'm one of the lower freshmen but seeing all these guys run makes me super excited.
"With us wanting to run well and wanting to do well and wanting to run as a team that will push us farther and farther as a program."
Said Witzleben: "Now we have recruits coming here because they know they're coming into a program that's going to be successful. They can develop."