The one-two punch of senior co-captains Tim Nichols and Luke O’Connor came out with something to prove on Saturday, at their last college cross country meet. The duo traveled to E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky. for the Div. III NCAA Championship, representing a Jumbo squad that did not qualify for the meet as a team for the first time since 2010, missing the cut by a small margin. The captains qualified based on their top-three finishes at Regionals.
“They wanted to make sure they did the rest of the group proud,” assistant coach Mike Schmidt said.
They certainly gave their teammates something to cheer about. Nichols finished the 8-kilometer race in third place, with a time of 24:09.70, and O’Connor finished 20th at 24:42.40. Both runners earned All-American honors. This is the first time in the program’s history that two runners have received All-American honors in the same NCAA race.
The race also marked Nichols’ second year in a row as an All-American finisher at Nationals, where he placed 19th last year. Nichols is the first Jumbo to finish in the top-five at Nationals and in doing so, he recorded the fastest Tufts time at an NCAA meet. O’Connor’s time ranked third in Tufts’ Nationals history after Matt Rand (LA ’12) who posted a 24:36 in 2011.
“Definitely a great day. We came here with just two guys and we left with two All-Americans,” Schmidt said of the meet. “Can’t ask for much better than that. I think they both went out aggressively and put themselves in positions to run really well. Both of them capped off their careers by raising the bar for what is expected from the program.”
North Central College was the overall winner with 60 points, followed by SUNY Geneseo and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, with 204 and 209 points respectively. The top finisher was Ian LaMere from University of Wisconsin-Platteville at 23:40.40.
Nichols crossed just seven tenths of a second behind the second place finisher, senior Ernie Pitone of Widener University. Nichols did not let his just missing on second place take away from the experience, though.
“While I was so disappointed to be so close to second, I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out on Saturday,” Nichols said. “I’m definitely sad about my cross country career coming to a close since it’s been part of my life for so long. This team fostered so close a group that was really special to be a part of, especially in [my] and Luke [O’Connor’s] last year.”
This was the first time in their careers that Nichols and O’Connor were running for individual scoring rather than with the team, as the Jumbos had narrowly missed out on a team berth by finishing fifth at Regionals. However, they still felt that they were there to compete for their teammates. And their teammates were right there with them, covered in face paint, body paint and flags, cheering their loudest all throughout the course.
“We have really awesome fans. For a long time, our team has had a tradition of making a drive out to the meet no matter how far away it is, no matter what their class or academic schedule is like,” Schmidt said. “I think we had 43 men and women make the trip so [that] was just really wonderful to have. There was still the feel of a local regional meet with the support we had on the sidelines even though it was Nationals.”
Last week, the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Associations (USTFCCA) deemed Nichols the New England region’s Athlete of the Year. Nichols and O’Connor have also achieved All-NESCAC and All-Region honors this season, in recognition of their being among the best runners that Tufts and the NESCAC have ever seen.
“There are certainly shoes to fill, and the other guys are going to look at the success they had and where they came in as runners and realize that huge improvements every year are possible and that if you put the work in and you dedicate yourself, you can accomplish pretty great things,” Schmidt said. “The ethic they brought and what they and the whole senior class has done in terms of leadership and guiding the other guys and getting them to want to be a part of a successful team is huge for our culture and it doesn’t go away.”
Schmidt believes that the young team has areas that it needs to work on for next season, especially now that the group is in search for redemption by qualifying for Nationals as a team once again.
“I think this year, especially for a really large sophomore class, was just to get their feet wet and some new racing experiences,” Schmidt said. “Hopefully next year, they’ll come in ready to get more from the outset with a little more expectation for consistent racing every single week. There’s certainly enough guys and enough talent to qualify and have a better team than we had this year, but it will take some dedication and consistency over the next couple of months and especially over the summer.”
For now, the team is preparing for the transition into indoor track season. The cross country runners won’t compete again until January, when they hope to meet lofty goals and expand on their fall success. Schmidt said that in the meantime, their goals in the upcoming weeks are to relax and do well on finals.