The Elon University cross country team recently experienced some major changes in the program, but the men’s team hasn’t lost its focus.

“The important thing is that we’re all still together,” said senior Ari Rothschild. “It’s different, but our goal is going to be the same. We want to progress as athletes and individuals on the course and off.”

The expectation is the same: the best finish in Elon history. With three seniors who know the program and have developed in it, the team is relying on their leadership this season, especially with head coach Nick Polk being hired so late in the summer.

“Coming in as a freshman, you’re already overwhelmed with the changes of college and then not having a coach that you had that relationship with,” said freshman Will Leopold. “But the senior guys will guide us in the right direction.”

Not having that established relationship with a coach could be a detriment to any team, but the trust between Polk and his runners is what’s going to maintain a good environment.

“We have to give it 100 percent. He’s so passionate about what he does, and we’re really excited to be working with him,” Rothschild said of Polk.

Cross country is an individual sport, although when it comes to designing workouts that involve up to 12 miles of running and aerobic fitness, guidance from the coach is essential. 

“We wouldn’t be in the shape that we’re in without the work of the coach and how he trains us,” Rothschild said. “And that’s a huge part of our sport. We’re only racing for a small part of the season. It’s mostly training.”

For Rothschild, the coach’s role is invaluable come race day.

“You talk about strategy and certain splits in the race, but at the end of the day, it’s just you, the runner out there,” he said. “The coach is big on motivation before the race.”

It may just be the individual runner on the course, but coming up on mile 5 on race day, there’s also an incentive to keep going for others.

“The relationship with the coach is important because if you’re not happy or don’t have a good connection, you’re not going to run fast for them,” Leopold said.

Another source of motivation for these athletes to go the extra mile is their teammates running next to them.

“If you feel close to your teammates, you’re going to want to fight harder in meets and run the extra miles in practice,” Rothschild said. “It makes us want to work harder to reach our personal goals and help everyone else reach their goals as well. It’s a crucial part of cross country.”

In a sport like cross country, one single misstep could ruin a potentially personal-best time. 

This team is going to need this strong camaraderie to make an impact in the Colonial Athletic Association this season.

“There’s a lot of big meets that we haven’t been to yet,” said Rothschild. “We haven’t raced in ones at that caliber, and I’m excited to see what our team can do against that competition.”

The Division I collegiate stage is a big one for incoming freshmen. The races are longer, the other runners are faster and the pressure is greater, but that doesn’t scare Leopold.

“I’m really excited to be racing again, not knowing anyone’s times or who you’re racing against,” Leopold said. “We’re racing against the clock and for the best place possible. I just want to help the team any way I can.”

It’ll be a change for the entire Phoenix cross country team running against new opponents, but what matters most is that the sweat-stained maroon and gold jerseys surrounding them are still there kicking up dirt.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s affecting anything when I’m just out there running with my teammates,” Rothschild said. “We’re only going up from here.”