Year in and year out, no matter what circumstances are thrown at it, the Shippensburg University men’s cross-country team can count on being right in the thick of things when the postseason rolls around and stakes are raised.
Head coach Steve Spence, who has guided the program since 1998, has coached the team to a Top-5 finish in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) in 21 of his 22 years at the helm.
The Raiders have won the conference title three times during Spence’s tenure, and this season’s third-place finish extended their streak of consecutive Top-3 finishes to seven years. However, this year’s team was a bit different than past iterations.
The 2019 Raiders rolled out a youthful squad with a whopping 10 freshmen on the official 14-man roster. When the PSAC Championships rolled around in late October, nine freshmen and three sophomores competed in SU’s most important race of the season.
The Raiders were lucky to have such a dominant crop of young talent after the runners in the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 left the team for various reasons.
“It definitely doesn’t happen every year, to be able to get such top-end talent in,” Spence said. “It’s super competitive out there, especially nowadays.”
The young squad shares a close bond, Spence said, not just at practice and at meets but in their personal lives, too. Spence said the athletes support one another when it comes to academics, rest and recovery so that they are able to continue to work at a high level at practice.
Andrew Feldman, who is just a redshirt sophomore athletically and a junior academically, is one of the oldest runners on the team.
“With 10 new guys who aren’t familiar with college or any of the lifestyle changes that are associated with it, we [upperclassmen] have to play a part in just kinda guiding them through things,” Feldman said. “They’re smart kids, they’ll figure things out on their own, it’s just a matter of making sure they’re on the right path to get there.”
With such a young team, one would assume that creative coaching tactics might be helpful. Spence, a former Olympic marathoner, said he draws upon his own experiences quite a bit when coaching his athletes.
“To get to the level I was at, I put in a lot of work,” Spence said with a laugh. “I’ve experienced almost every injury, I’ve tried different things, I know what does and doesn’t work. One thing I tell them is, ‘I never ask you to do anything that I’ve ever done.’”
Despite finding success in the present, Spence has his sights set on the big picture.
“We’re doing good, but the future is what we’re looking at,” Spence said. “All these guys that are freshmen and sophomores are going to be different runners, developmentally, than where they’re at now.”
Placing third out of 15 teams in the conference is no small feat for SU, especially with its key contributors being so early in the developmental process. With that in mind, these Raiders should be a force to be reckoned with in the PSAC and beyond for years to come.