Bradynn Belcher, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
Maintaining a high standard is the theme for the Berry men’s and women’s cross country teams this season. Coming off one of the best years in program history for both teams since moving to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 2013, the Vikings return with veteran rosters and underclassman that are threading the needle with aspirations of running further into post season meets than they ever have before.
The Berry Vikings men’s team finished the 2022 season as the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) champions as well as accumulated a program best of third in the NCAA regional championships. The women were declared the second-place finishers at the SAA championships, and they tied their best season to date with a fifth-place finish at the regional meet, a feat they have not accomplished since 2018.
Traditionally the Vikings always begin their season on Sept. 1 with a home meet, no matter what day of the week that falls on. Due to predicted inclement weather, Head Coach Paul Deaton made the executive decision to move their start date to Sept. 2. The break in tradition did not affect his runners in the slightest as both teams dominated the competition on opening day.
At the Berry Open, the men sprinted into action during their first eight-kilometer race of the season and dominated the field with a team score of 19 points. The Vikings ran circles around their competition as the second-place finishers, Morehouse College, charted 60 points.
The women were in the same boat as they won their six-kilometer stride by 33 points. The women’s team ran a low score of 15 points while their only opponent on the day, Covenant College, put 48 points on the board.
Such a strong finish in the first meet of the season as well as accolades from the previous season could put a target on any athletic team’s back, but Deaton does not see it as such.
“We’re focused more on the meets in front of us,” Deaton said. “I think we will celebrate statistics like that after the season is over. But currently, we’re pretty much focusing on how we can better ourselves going forward.”
The men’s and women’s team achieved a clean sweep in individual first place finishes as well. Graduate student Bradshaw Lathbury has proven over the years that he knows how to win races. Placing first at the Berry Open is just another win to add to the list of prestigious accolades that Lathbury keeps on his shelf. Last season, Bradshaw singlehandedly qualified for the NCAA Championships and placed 45th which is just five spots short of being declared an All-American.
The women’s team did not have to rely on a veteran to pace the field at the Berry Open. Instead, in her first ever collegiate race, Freshman Olivia Lambert made her new presence known as she was the first to cross the finish line.
Deaton described how special it was to see her hard work pay off during her first collegiate win.
“[Lambert] ran with so much composure, and when she did begin to break free of the field, she didn’t get rattled and she maintained her pace and then ran even faster the last mile,” Deaton said. “It was special and a lot of fun. I’m sure she will build on that, and I think that she deserves all the credit.”
Lambert did not predict that she would enter the Berry running realm in such a big way, but she said that she could not have done it without her teammates help along the way.
“I didn’t think I would actually win,” Lambert said. “My teammates have helped me a lot. I run a lot with Hastings [Gray] and Asena [Anderson]. They help me when the trails are really confusing, so they’re very nice to run with.”
The men’s team is sitting with an unusual situation since their roster is filled with 10 athletes that are seniors or graduate students. According to Deaton, the Vikings have returned all their top seven runners from last year. Senior captain Grady Coppock believes that the depth, experience and work ethic from the veterans sets this team apart from their competition.
“[A veteran roster] definitely has a lot of advantages athletically, and from a culture standpoint,” Coppock said. “Having all those guys come back and really help our younger guys because building that up really helps our team. So it’s a great opportunity for us.”
The women’s team also did not lose any of their top seven runners last year, however, Deaton said that the strength of the women’s team lies in their physical fitness, care for one another, and their ability to not hyper fixate on the little things but look at the whole picture.
“The women’s strength is that there’s a good bit of fitness that can only be built over time,” Deaton said. “There’s a genuine care for each other. They recognize why running is important and how it fits in with the other things that are important to us. That kind of wholeness and that kind of approach is a strength that pays dividends in the actual performance as well.”
Both teams will be competing at Converse University on Sept. 16, where they will face tough competition. The Vikings are most looking forward to going head-to-head with Emory College since they have recently been one of the best teams in the region. If the Vikings aspire for nationals, these are the type of teams they need to see.
Deaton believes that no matter the outcome of their next meet, both teams stand to benefit.
“I feel like it’s a no-lose situation because you’re going to come out of the race motivated and you’re going to come out with a better understanding of what it takes to compete, no matter the results,” Deaton said.
Coppock said that running with strong teams will increase Berry’s confidence for the remainder of the season.
“Most of us have never seen any of these guys before, and to be able to race with ranked teams is something that will give us another level of confidence,” Coppock said.
The Vikings have the prestigious advantage of hosting the NCAA Regional Championships this year, and that alone has given these runners a large sense of urgency to use this to their benefit and go further than any Berry cross country team has gone before.
“I think hosting definitely puts us at an advantage because then we also don’t have to factor in traveling and we know the course,” Lambert said. “I think it would be cool if both teams made it to nationals, and I really think we can do it.”