By Rob Schabert, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Every tale has a beginning and an end. The really great stories have memorable stuff in the middle.
For the senior members of the Tennessee Tech cross country teams, the beginning came a few years ago. The ending will be written Saturday when the Golden Eagles compete in the Ohio Valley Conference Championships at Eagle Trace Golf Course in Morehead, Ky.
Not only will the meet wrap up the 2013 season, it will be the final chapter in the careers of Tech's seven seniors, three on the men's squad and four women.
It's all that stuff on the pages in between that has built character and bonded the members of the Golden Eagle squads. That includes dozens of personal-best performances, miles and miles and miles of travel, some personal triumphs and a touch of tragedy. Through it all, the common theme has been the tight bond forged by Tech's runners.
"These seniors have meant a great deal to our program, and to me personally," said head coach Tony Cox. "They have worked hard throughout their careers at becoming the best runners they could be, an. They have also done a great job in the classroom and have been involved in several campus and community events and organizations.
"It's been really fun to see how they support each other, and how they have become like a family, through good times or bad," Cox said.
In June of 2010, the team leaned heavily on each other to overcome the death of freshman teammate Palmer Maphet in an automobile accident.
"That was an extremely difficult time for all of us," Cox said. "I think one of the things that got all of us through it was how close these student-athletes are to each other."
For the men's team, Saturday is the end of the trail for seniors John Greene, Nathan Snow and Matthew Bishop. Bishop and Snow are in their fourth seasons on the roster, while Greene is a fifth-year senior after spending 2012 as a medical redshirt following knee surgery.
An engineering major from Friendsville, Tenn., Greene has been the leader for the Golden Eagles, finishing first on the team and running among meet leaders in every event this season.
"It has been a blessing being on the Tech cross country team for four-and-a-half years," Greene said. "I want to thank all of my teammates for making my time at Tech unforgettable and supporting me through the rough times such as losing Palmer and getting through my knee surgery last year. They have made my time here worthwhile."
Snow has also overcome some difficult times, working to recover from a bacterial illness that kept him off the course for the entire 2012 season, and all of this season. An English major from Collierville, Tenn., he will run Saturday in his first meet in two years.
"I think it's great that Nathan is getting a chance to race in the conference meet in his senior year," Cox said. "He's been so up-and-down with this illness, and we'll all be so happy to see him on the course."
Snow credits his teammates with helping him through the tough times.
"Being a member of the Tech cross country team has meant a lot of things, but what has meant the most is the sense of community that we have," Snow said. "I know that there will always be nine other guys who care about me and want to see me succeed, just like I care about them and want to see them succeed.
"For me, my low point would be fighting Heliobactor Pylori throughout my junior season," he said. "It weakened me to the point that I couldn't even do easy runs with my teammates, being my body couldn't handle it. I struggled with going to practice every day because I knew that I would only experience disappointment and feel dead."
Snow's return to the course Saturday will be his first race since his sophomore season in 2011, when he ran in five events but was not in the lineup for the OVC meet. It will be his first conference meet since his freshman season in 2010.
"The highlight for me isn't a PR or placing in a race," he said. "It's actually been recovering from the illness. I'm still light years away from where I want and need to be, but I can see progress from week to week and it feels great to know that I'm finally the one in control of my body after over a year of being manipulated and weakened by microscopic bacteria."
For the four senior women, each expressed how important the opportunity to run on the Tech cross country and track & field teams has been to their college lives.
"Being on this team has been such a blessing. I've grown not only as an athlete, but as a person," said Amelia McCoy, a biology major from Crossville, Tenn. "These girls have been there to push and support me anytime, need it be the NCAA Regional meets to keeping me positive when I was having to redshirt season. I have had a wonderful four years here, and I wouldn't have rather shared all of these experiences and memories with any other team."
Rebecca Cline has been the best distance runner at Tech throughout her career, leading the cross country team in nearly every meet for the past three years.
"I came to Tennessee Tech fairly new to the sport of running compared to most of the other freshmen, so everything seemed a little overwhelming," Cline said. "I was blessed to have so many friendly and outgoing fellow freshman and returning members to make me feel welcome.
"I've had my downs over the years. I've had minor injuries here and there, but never anything too serious. If someone had told me the times I would be running when I was a senior back when I first got here, I would have told them that they were crazy. It was quite a journey to get where I am today, but I wouldn't change anything," she said.
Peri Winborne, an exercise science major from Knoxville, says her time at Tech has helped teach her lessons well beyond the sports realm.
"Being on this team and running cross country in general has been such a huge part of my life," Winborne said. "Some people don't give our sport the credit it deserves, but we have never let that bother us. We have always had each other and that is all we've ever needed.
"We've had ups and downs and fights and triumphs, but through it all we've grown. We've grown together as humans and as runners. Running is a different kind of sport. It's not something you have to quit after college, it's a sport you can continue on your own for your whole life. I can't tell you how many times we, as a team, have talked about our future with running beyond college.
"Running has taught us all so much that I don't believe any of us will give it up once we're done; we've learned to persevere when life gets hard; we've learned to be tough when we're down and tired; we've learned to brush off the mistakes and overlook the things we can't change, all the while learning from those mistakes, too.
"We've learned to support people when they've beat you or accomplished something you wanted; we've learned to see the small victories and look at the bigger picture in life; and we've learned to respect ourselves and treat others with that same respect," she said. "This is a great group of girls and I would not trade my four years at Tennessee Tech for four years at ANY other school on any other team."
The 2013 Ohio Valley Conference Cross Country Championship will be run at Eagle Trace Golf Course, located a few miles west of the city of Morehead. The men's 8K race will begin at 10:45 a.m. EDT with the women's 5K race following at 11:45 a.m. EDT.
It marks the first time that the event has been held in Morehead since 2002. The meet is free and open to the public.
This will be the 52nd OVC men's championship, as the first one was held in 1962. Eastern Kentucky has won the most OVC Championships (21), including the last seven in a row and eight of the last nine. EKU has had the individual champion in each of the last nine years.
The women's championship will be determined for the 35th time this year. Eastern Kentucky has won 26 of the previous 34 championships, including winning a season ago in Oxford, Ala. Belmont had the individual winner a season ago in its first year in the league.
The OVC Athletes and Freshmen of the Year, which are determined by coaches vote, will be announced on Friday and awarded along with the Coach of the Year, Athletes of the Championship and All-OVC honors following Saturday's Championship.