The mindset entering the Colonial Athletic Association Championships is a little different in the second go-round for Elon University cross country sophomore Nick Ciolkowski, who will be defending his individual CAA title Saturday, Oct. 29, in Newark, Delaware.
“Last year was more, ‘Put yourself there and what happens, happens,’” Ciolkowski said. “Here, I’m definitely thinking more, ‘This is mine. I want to keep it.’ I’m hyping myself up by thinking about the guys who are trying to take it from me, and my job is to not let them do that.”
But in addition to keeping the men’s individual championship, the Phoenix is hoping that it can add a team title to go with it.
“The training lends itself to be ready at this time of the year, so they should be sharp,” said cross country head coach Nick Polk. “This is what we talk about all year, so they really don’t seem to get too excited for any race until this weekend. I harp on this meet from day one of the year.”
It’s the same thing for Ciolkowski, who states that he’s been, “dying” for the chance to defend seven-tenths of a second victory. Polk says that the goal is for Ciolkowski to, “not make it so stressful” for everyone, but he’s also looking ahead at the regional race two weekends later and potentially at the NCAA Championships Nov. 19.
“His training is at so much higher of a level this year,” Polk said. “I hope, for him, that the goal is to show off what he’s done in training. If he beats the field by a minute, great, but we can’t control what anyone else does. He could have a better race than last year and lose.”
Ciolkowski understands that fact, but he has gotten some recent inspiration from an Elon legend. He trained Monday with Luis Vargas ’15, the other CAA individual champion from Elon. Ciolkowski joked that he was breathing hard when running with Vargas, who he says, “is clearly much better than I am.”
“He was talking to me about what the NC State [University] guys say about me and how he always brags about me to them,” Ciolkowski said. “He was basically giving me a pep talk for 10 miles straight, telling me to be confident going into the race. I want to run with him all the time now.”But Ciolkowski isn’t the only one with title aspirations. Polk sees an opportunity for the women’s team to finish its progression to the top of the CAA after finishing in third and second respectively in its first two championship meets.
“That’s been our goal all year — if you look at the regional rankings, we’re behind [the College of] William & Mary and ahead of James Madison [University],” Polk said. “Technically, on paper, we’re second, but in a really small field, we have just as good of a chance at getting first or third. It’s all going to come down to who races the best race that day.”
Senior Kimberly Johansen has, “set herself apart” from the rest of the team as a standout runner according to Polk, who expects her to lead the team Saturday. But Polk believes that the depth of the women’s team should shine through in the race.
“Our goal would be to put as many people into the Top-12 — All-Conference — as possible,” Polk said. “They’re competitive against other teams, and as the season has gone on, we’ve taken on an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
Polk is a big believer in the concept of “pack running,” where teams try to have all of their racers stay together for as long as possible. When executed, the slower runners on the team are able to keep pace with the top runner by staying in the pack. And the longer the pack sticks together, the better the team does.
It’s a good fit for the Phoenix, as Polk recognizes that Elon doesn’t have a Ciolkowski-like star on the women’s side, but they do have a lot of quality runners.
“We’re trying to put as many people in front of the other team’s number-five [finisher] as possible,” Polk said. “We most likely don’t have the best one-two finish, but I think we definitely have the best seven-woman team. If we can put them as close as possible, then we can potentially win the meet.”
With the men’s side, Polk acknowledges that it will be difficult for Elon to top 16-time defending champion William & Mary, but the Phoenix is hoping to top its two third place finishes in its CAA race.
“I think we’re a stronger pack than we’ve been for the men,” Polk said. “It’ll be exciting to see who finishes in second, third and fourth because I couldn’t predict who that would be today.”