Freshmen Hit the Ground Running for the Bison
Jan. 10, 2009
By Matt Saylor, Bucknell Athletic Communications
Filtering a couple at a time into Zeller Lounge at the Kenneth Langone Athletics and Recreation Center, the freshmen of the women’s cross country team are holding a number of different conversations. A few are discussing their injuries and when they might be able to compete again. Some are discussing the book that Kelly Desharnais has brought with her, as she tries to grab a spare moment here and there to get through the text. And, almost without fail, the team is stretching.
Having just completed practice on an overcast day in late September in Lewisburg, those that had run were in various stages of completing their warm down. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, multiple members of the team shift positions around the room, leaning against furniture or each other to work out all of the kinks in their muscles. It is difficult to find a time when at least one of them is not moving.
What stands out most about this group of 10 women is that they are always moving. Moving from morning jogs to classes to practice to homework to bed. Moving to the top of cross country head coach Kevin Donner’s depth chart. Moving the women’s cross country team to as high as a No. 6 ranking in the Mid-Atlantic region of the National Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll. Moving the team toward a fourth consecutive Patriot League championship.
The freshman class quickly made a name for itself with an impressive showing in its first collegiate event, the Bison Open on August 29. Caitlin Cavanaugh, a native of nearby Danville, was the top finisher for the Bison and second overall in the three-mile race. Her roommate, Stephanie Fulmer of Pottstown, Pa., placed fifth, while Allison Donaghy (eighth) and Samantha Bower (10th) gave the Bison four freshmen in the top 10. Four more finished between 11 and 20, as Alysha Hooper (14th), Kara Weichler (15th), Desharnais (17th) and Kelly Grosskurth (20th) displayed the incredible depth that the class of 2012 has. Melissa Smith finished 28th, while Erin Donaghy did not run due to injury. So, while 18 of the top-28 runners in the race were Bison, nine of those 18 were freshman.
The top-notch results continued and awards soon followed. Cavanaugh was named Patriot League Female Rookie of the Week on September 6, after finishing sixth at the 22nd Annual Running Fit-Detroit Titan Invitational. The second- and third-best runners for the Bison at the meet? Allison Donaghy and Fulmer, who finished seventh and 10th, respectively.
Fulmer received the Patriot League Female Runner of the Week award after finishing fifth at the Buffalo Stampede on Sept. 20, leading the Bison (along with Cavanaugh, who placed sixth) to another second-place finish. Two weeks later she was honored again, following a 55th-place finish out of 301 runners at the 35th Annual Lehigh University Brooks Paul Short Run, being named Patriot League Female Rookie of the Week and Damon’s Bison Athlete of the Week.
On this day though, the talented bunch is a tired group. Not tired from practice, but rather the rigors associated with being a first-year collegiate student-athlete. They are finally hitting the proverbial wall that emerges for first-year college students after the excitement of orientation and a new environment has worn off. They recognize that they are in a new place, living somewhere that is not exactly home. Running is their escape.
Throughout the discussion that would take place, different members of the team discussed how running became their passion, cross country versus track, the transition to college and the always difficult decisions to be made about the future, among other topics.
It can be hard for those who do not run cross country to understand why anyone would. Who wants to be constantly running? Who wants to participate in a sport that is not measured by wins and losses? Why would this be your choice?
“Cross country is the genuine sport,” Desharnais declares. “There is no fluff to it. Everything you do is left out on the course. Everything that you do is for your team. It takes complete commitment.”
The others sitting around her show their agreement with knowing smiles and nods of their heads. Certainly, though, someone cannot come to that conclusion without trying the sport first.
“I’ll be honest—I started running as conditioning for basketball,” Weichler admits. She is wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt to showcase her pride in her hometown team. “Quickly though, this became what I wanted to do, and I dropped basketball after my sophomore year of high school.”
Many others started running because it was in their blood—literally.
“My whole family runs,” Bower, a native of Greensburg, Pa., says. “Every Saturday we would all run together.”
Hooper, the furthest freshman from home (Meaford, Ontario) always ran with her dad. The Donaghy twins ran with their father as well, back home in Colts Neck, N.J.
Fulmer, who started running at a young age, cites the ability to run by oneself as a plus.
“You can go at your own pace. There is an individualized aspect to it. Plus,” she grins, “I like being different from everyone else.”
Each girl had her own story on why she came to Bucknell as well. Bower did not want to come on her recruiting trip, certain she was not going to choose the University. After the urging of her parents to come anyway, she did. And?
“As soon as I got here, I knew this was where I was coming,” she exclaims. “The campus is gorgeous, the people are friendly. This was it.”
Grosskurth, from Huntington Station, N.Y., adds, “It is such a close-knit environment. I love the size of the place, and that it is not overwhelming.”
Smith’s older sister, Nichole, is a senior at Bucknell and also a member of the cross country squad.
“I knew the campus because Nichole was here, but it was not the biggest factor as to why I came,” the Mercer, Pa., product says.
The Donaghy sisters are glad they are in one place, but would have gone their separate ways had each chose a different school.
“We both ended up liking it here,” Allison Donaghy says. “We told each other, though, that we would be supportive of each other wherever each of us went.”
When asked if cross country or academics was the reason they came to Bucknell, almost all of the girls immediately speak of the academics or say it was 50-50 in making their decision. Finally, Fulmer speaks up.
“My decision was more based around running,” she laughs. When she sees that her comment is being written down, she quickly asks, “You aren’t going to print that are you?” before adding the obligatory, “obviously, the academics speak for themselves.”
The discussion turns to a comparison of cross country versus track and there is unanimous agreement among the young women that cross country is their sport of choice.
“It is more hardcore,” Desharnais, a Sandown, N.H., resident, insists. “There is not the same repetition that there is in track. There are different courses. You have to fight to run up hills and down narrow paths. It is more demanding physically and mentally. All tracks are the same.”
Fulmer adds a few words about different courses, but then the debate over cross country versus track ends. It seems as if the question was too silly to be asked.
The different personalities in the room become more and more apparent the longer the time goes. Cavanaugh and Smith are quiet, almost to a fault, while Desharnais and Fulmer provide a lot of in-depth answers. Bower loves to entertain, while Grosskurth, Hooper and Weichler are more reserved, as are the Donaghys, but will volunteer the occasional piece of information.
They talk about the transition to college being tough, put praise the upperclassmen on their team for looking out for them. As Grosskurth says, “We already have a family here.”
Family plays an important role in the discussion. Hooper won’t be able to go home to Canada until Christmas. Erin Donaghy felt “overwhelmed at first, but the team is my second family.”
Bower adds, “I never really thought that I’d say ‘I miss you Mom,’ but when you stop to think about being away from you, you do.”
As the discussion winds down, talk turns to what this group is capable of doing. Bower gives the most realistic answer. “I don’t know what I’m capable of,” she says. “I just want to keep learning and getting better.”
The group discusses their academic pursuits and interests, ranging from biomedical engineering (Desharnais) to education (Grosskurth, Smith), from computer science (Hooper) to environmental science (Erin Donaghy), from medicine and psychology (Weichler and Fulmer) to law (Bower). Cavanaugh and Allison Donaghy say they are undecided, which causes most of the others who have given answers to say they really are as well.
Donner has sat quietly throughout, only with an occasional comment for one of his runners. At the end, he sums up what he has seen.
“This is one of the most visible groups I’ve ever had,” he says. “It is really hard to contribute right away in cross country … and this group made a statement right away. They have made a pretty good team into a great team. It is the most talented class I’ve recruited, and it is showing.”
He continues, “They are making a lot of other people great runners, pushing them harder. For us, obviously Patriot League competition is the priority, but I want to start thinking beyond that. I want to make this a nationally viable program.”
The 10 young women smile at the thought, but don’t have much time to think about it. It is time for dinner, homework and bed. They are on the move again.