Sophomore Nick Ciolkowski isn’t the most vocal guy on the Elon University men’s cross country team. And he didn’t think that’d be an issue, particularly so early in his career. 

That’s what comes with success.

Ciolkowski leads a pack of untested, inexperienced runners on Elon’s roster this season, and because of the team’s makeup — three freshmen and four redshirt freshmen — he’s being thrust into a leadership position a year after taking the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) by storm and winning its championship.

“I’m trying to be more outspoken and take more charge — it makes me uncomfortable,” Ciolkowski said. “I guess it’s the role I’m in after last year. It’s definitely something I’m keeping in mind.”

Elon opens Sept. 1 at the Elon Opener.

Head coach Nick Polk is confident in Ciolkowski’s leadership. He sees similarities between the sophomore and former All-American Luis Vargas, a comparison that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Polk said they both lead by example, rather than with words. They’re both strong academically and athletically — Ciolkowski interned 40 hours a week this summer at a microbiology lab this summer, and is majoring in biochemistry. And they’re both rigid in their training, which shows in their performance.

“I don’t want that to get lost in a bubble,” Polk said. “I want freshmen to see how hard he is working to get what he achieves.”

Not only does Ciolkowski have to weigh the leadership role, but he must also manage the high expectations that come with being a conference champion during his freshman season.

In winning the meet last year in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, Ciolkowski became the first runner to be named CAA Athlete of the Year and CAA Rookie of the Year in men’s cross country. His time in the championship meet is second only to Vargas’ from the previous year.

Ciolkowski calls qualifying for nationals a “big, triple-A gold standard goal,” but he’s also cognizant of the fact that he’s a sophomore and has three full seasons left. It’s still the same goal, but his smarts show when taking stock of the situation as a whole.

“I’m trying to keep it all in the moment,” Ciolkowski said. “I know from personal experience that the stress can get to me. Last year is last year — none of that matters. It’s all behind me. I can’t take CAAs for granted. I can’t take regionals for granted.

“It’s, ‘This is what I need to do today to be successful,’ instead of, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to be conference champion again,’ like it’s the end of the world. I’m trying to keep myself focused and trying not to get my head too big."

Polk said junior Carlos Andino has stood out as a vocal leader, complementing Ciolkowski’s leadership style. Elon also returns junior Justin Leopold and sophomores Josh Kruppa and Greg Paugh. 

Coming off preseason camp, Polk is unsure of how the lineup shakes out after Ciolkowski at the top.

Elon’s finished third at each of the last two CAA championships. As Ciolkowski breaks out of his comfort zone to lead the newcomers, while considering his own expectations, he knows that’s not enough.

“I think we’re frustrated with a third-place finish,” he said. “Everybody’s hungry to prove themselves and show what kind of role they’re going to have on the team this year.”