Mizzou cross country making most of unusual offseason
As social distancing guidelines went into place, Missouri head cross country coach Marc Burns wasn’t concerned about his student-athletes’ work ethic.
Yes, the Tigers were thrown out of their usual routines. But it was his belief the distance runners were a high-achieving group who could handle the unusual challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
Members of the team – which includes Blue Springs graduates Stephen and Victor Mugeche and Oaklee Hauschild on the men’s side, and Blue Springs South graduate Tori Findley on the women’s side – have been spread out across the world, with newcomers in Australia and New Zealand along with a few who are from Europe.
Burns and assistant coaches have provided support in any way they can.
The main objective? As long as each runner could find a consistent trail to stay in shape, there was no doubt that when they eventually return to Columbia, the Tigers wouldn’t have months of catching up to do.
“Our group seems pretty resilient and they seem to be doing really well,” Burns said. “So we're excited for the summer ahead and we're just trying to help each of them be able to make the most of their summer training so that they can come back here in the fall and be ready to roll with whatever lies ahead.”
The second wave of student-athletes allowed to return to Missouri facilities for voluntary workouts will be back in less than a week.
The three sports taking part in that second group are the three fall championship sports not already on campus: men’s and women’s cross country, women’s soccer and volleyball.
Burns declined in a recent interview to say how much of his team he expects to return to Columbia by next Monday, but he did mention that for local student-athletes, the Katy and MKT trails would be ideal for training.
“As long as they don't go crazy, as long as they get their work in, for us from a cross country standpoint, it's pretty manageable,” Burns said. “We're pretty fortunate in that standpoint. And our kids are so good. I don't worry about them at all. I know that they're driven. ... They want to keep getting better. So I know they're going to work hard and they're probably going to follow the suggested workout plan pretty closely outside of maybe some travel.
“We're excited to get them going. They've had a nice break. They just took a nice, really long break — longer than usual.”
The Tigers’ cross country schedule wasn’t locked in before the COVID-19 pandemic started. September meets are in question, but nothing has been officially canceled. Athletes typically race every other weekend in season.
Missouri is tentatively scheduled to open its season Labor Day weekend at the Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia. That is one of two home meets the Tigers hope to have completed this season, with the larger of the two taking place the first weekend of October.
“We're planning on having that, I think Oct. 4 we should be up and running,” Burns said. “If we're going to have a season, we're going to be up and running by Oct. 4.”
Burns hopes the October home meet could grow in size because of regional scheduling, as some teams probably won’t have the luxury of traveling around the country to complete their original schedules this fall.
During the first weekend of October, Notre Dame and Louisville also plan to host meets that Midwest schools could attend, Burns said.
“When you look at the positive side of all of this, maybe we will start getting some more regional competition and get some of the old rivalries going,” Burns said. “Certainly some of the original Big Eight (Conference), Big 12 teams maybe are going to be competing more again and we'll see more Big 10 teams. I'm excited about it. I think that it could be a really good twist for us.”
Also on the table for Missouri are possible trips to Vanderbilt, Wisconsin and Bradley, all before the Southeastern Conference championships.
The SEC meet is scheduled to take place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Oct. 30, which would be Missouri’s lone meet it couldn’t bus to this season, Burns said.
The NCAA Midwest regional meet is slated to take place in Lawrence, Kansas, in the middle of November, and the national championships are scheduled for Stillwater, Oklahoma, at the end of November.
This season’s journey is officially allowed to start Monday.
Burns has hosted Zoom calls with his team to help pass the time since quarantine went into effect, lining up special guests such as former MU cross country national champion Karissa Schweizer and 2004 American Olympian long-distance runner Tim Broe.
“This whole experience was certainly different for them and it put a few of them on their heels,” Burns said. “And I think as a group, we were able to get everybody going and keep everybody as positive as they could be.”
Whenever Burns’ full squad is back in Columbia, his No. 1 priority will still be providing a safe environment for his student-athletes.
He hopes that will happen in the context of a full season.