COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- A season that has been dedicated to a friend is nearly finished.
The Tennessee Tech cross country teams lost a teammate this summer when redshirt freshman Palmer Maphet was killed in an auto accident while on a mission trip in Maine. When the runners on the men's and women's squads returned to campus a couple of months later, they decided to dedicate the 2010 season to Maphet's memory.
On Saturday, the Golden Eagles will host the Ohio Valley Conference Championships at Southern Hills Golf Course. The event will be the final chance for seniors Sam Taylor, Ben Shassere and Joseph DeLorenzo (pictured above with coach Tony Cox) to run on their home course.
"It's been an amazing four years," Taylor said. "I'm sad to see it end, but at the same time I'm ready to finish. I've never had any doubt about my decision to come to Tech. I've enjoyed my time here. It's been a good group of guys on the team.
"I really enjoyed my time with the guys on the team and with the people I've known on campus," he said.
Coach Tony Cox found Taylor at Soddy-Daisy High School and talked him into becoming a Golden Eagle, choosing TTU over UT Martin and nearby UT Chattanooga. He has been at or near the top of the team standing in every meet for four seasons, and will be the team's top threat Saturday morning in the final 8K race of the year for the Golden Eagles.
Cox found Shassere at Oak Ridge High School.
"My whole family had been to Tech," Shassere said. "My dad is an engineer and I wanted to be an engineer, so Tech was a good choice for me. It was a pretty easy decision. My grandparents live in Cookeville so I'd been here to visit, I'd been on the campus, and it was the right choice."
So, following the trail blazed by his father (Mike), his mother (Cathy), and his aunt (Susan), Ben began his career for Coach Cox in 2007. He has been a fixture in Tech's lineup, running in all but one meet over his four years on the roster.
"Running at a place like Tech has its benefits," Shassere said. "We really got to know each other, and it's allowed me to have a life and made the college experience better. I think I'm closer to my teammates than I would have been at a larger school."
Being close to his teammates is also what sharpened the pain of losing Maphet.
"I only knew him one year, but he made a real impact in that short time," Shassere said. "I was on a research trip when I heard the news and it was devastating not being here to talk with the rest of the team."
Shassere said the team talks often about Maphet, his sense of humor and thirst for life.
"We're not dwelling on missing him and feeling sorry for ourselves. It's the way he'd like us to be," Shassere said. "We're still laughing about the stories he told, and about the way he made us laugh."
Taylor heard the news of Maphet's accident from Jarrad Read, the team captain in 2009. It came just six months after his father, Fred Stephen Taylor, had passed away.
"At first it didn't really sink in," Taylor said. "It was a shock. I had just lost my dad this past winter, and I was already grieving for that. It kind of helped me get through it and kind of softened the news about Palmer."
DeLorenzo is the elder member of the team, a fifth-year senior who enrolled at Tech in 2006 and sat out his first season as a medical redshirt due to a stress fracture in his left leg. In the past four years he has missed only one race for the Golden Eagles. An ankle injury kept him sidelined at Sewanee in the opening meet this fall.
He's on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in civil engineering, and plans to continue training in the spring with the team.
"I want to do whatever I can to help the freshmen develop, and to help the team and Coach Cox," he said. "He's done so much for me."
Although Tech wasn't his first choice, his plans changed during his senior year.
"I met Coach Cox at the state meet in the fall and started to get the idea that Tennessee Tech was going to be my future," he said.
Part of DeLorenzo's future was spending time in a weekly Bible study class with Maphet.
"We spent a lot of time, at least once a week, at a Bible study in his freshmen year," said DeLorenzo, whose faith helped him through the news. "I know he's in a better place and that he was a soldier for God. He served the Lord. He kept me on my toes in my walk with Christ."
DeLorenzo's lasting impression of Maphet was his attitude.
"He was one of those guys who was just full of energy and excitement. He was the heart and soul of our team and had a knack for taking charge with a positive energy, even though he was a freshman," DeLorenzo explained. "He was a big encouragement. He really inspired a lot of positive growth in my life and in others, not just on the team but at the University. He had a huge impact on this team."
Wrapping up a season dedicated to Maphet becomes even more special by hosting the OVC Championships, according to Shassere.
"What makes it special is being here on the team the year we get to host the conference championships," he said. "Just being able to run in the championship all four years, to be among the eight on our team, that's what's special for me."
With three seniors, the Golden Eagle roster has undergone a makeover the past two years with the infusion of several newcomers. This year's roster includes six sophomores and five freshmen.
"I think the seniors have really led this team," Shassere said. "I think the younger guys look up to us. College is a big life-changing experience. It's nice to know someone who's been there, done that."
Hitting the trail for a daily training run has taken a lot of discipline to get through four years.
"It takes a lot of discipline and hard work and guts just to tough it out," Shassere said.
Taylor said dedication goes hand-in-hand with discipline.
"Being dedicated over the summer is the biggest thing," he said. "We didn't come back to campus early like the other fall sports, so we needed to train on our own. We had to get out there every day.
"I had an internship, so I woke up at five o'clock to run before I'd go to work, or I'd have to run after work when everyone wants to do other stuff. We needed to set our priorities to train."
Shassere plans to attend graduate school and look for a career in research or teaching. And through it all, he'll continue running.
"I can't stop the sport I love," he said.
Taylor, meanwhile, will graduate in December with a degree in finance and isn't sure what lies ahead.
"I really wouldn't mind taking a break and traveling for a while," he said. Wherever he goes, he does plan to keep running.
"I might train for a marathon or a triathlon," he said. "I'll keep running."
The schedule of events begins Saturday with an opening ceremony at 8:45 a.m. as Jacob Hoot, a member of the Golden Eagle football team, will sing the national anthem. The women's 5K race begins at 9 a.m. and the men's 8K race starts at 9:45 a.m.
The event is open to the public and admission is free.