Freshmen overachieve in distance running

Two freshmen ran with confidence and earned All-conference honors in the men’s cross-country team’s State Farm MVC Championship victory.

Coach Matt Sparks said redshirt freshmen Juan Carrera and Oscar Medina, who finished ninth and 10th respectively, ran like seasoned veterans in the Oct. 27 contest.

“This is something you don’t usually see out of the younger runners,” he said. “They understand how to take care of their bodies properly and can perform in pressure situations.”

The underclassmen’s productivity has been the team’s theme all year. They helped turn a really good team into a conference champion.

Although true freshmen Abdurahim Haji and Brandon Shemonia didn’t race much this year, Shemonia won the Saluki Early Bird Invitational Aug. 31 in Carbondale as an unattached runner. Sparks said having the year off should help them improve and play a role in next season’s success.

Freshman cross-country runners Abdurahim Haji, left, and Brandon Shemonia, right, warm up Tuesday before practice at Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex. Both Haji and Shemonia red-shirted this season, but Head Coach Matt Sparks said that hasn’t stopped them from reaping the benefits of practice. He said lifestyle and leadership are a couple of things the freshmen learned from their competing teammates this season. “They saw what it takes to be successful at the college level,” Sparks said. “When their number is called next year, they can follow suit.” Tiffany Blanchette-Daily Egyptian

“They only saw a little bit of action this season, but if they continue to work hard, then they can help us win conference next year,” Sparks said.

Medina and Carrera have finished in the top 10 in four races this season, and the two are tied with leading juniors Brian Dixon and Zach Dahleen for the most top-10 Saluki finishes.

Medina said the team’s competitive nature helped propel its execution during meets.

“We are hungry to make a name for ourselves. We have manned up and not complained,” he said. “We are fighting for one of the top five spots, but we don’t let that aggressiveness hurt the team and we still have great team chemistry.”

The young runners live together in an apartment about 10 minutes from campus. Carrera said he and Medina tackle everyday tasks the same way they do in practice.

“We do everything with teamwork. If he’s doing dishes, then I’m taking out the trash,” Carrera said. “I’ll wash his dishes, and he’ll wash mine.”

Medina said the transition from high school to college was difficult at first, especially as a student athlete.

“You go from running about 30 to 40 miles a week in high school practices to 50 to 60 miles in college and still have to worry about classes,” he said.

Medina said he might not have continued to pursue cross-country if his friends didn’t join the high school team.

“I had to make a decision to continue with soccer or start new with cross-country,” he said. “I’ve played soccer since I was young, but I joined the cross-country team when two of my soccer teammates switched to distance running and we became the top three on the team.”

As the team’s most talkative and lighthearted member, Medina said he had trouble warming up to his teammates at first. He said now they look forward to him making jokes before meets.

“We have a lot of serious athletes on the team like Brian (Dixon),” he said. “Even Coach once told me that he has never seen a good athlete talk as much as I do. I try mixing in a little comedy to lighten the mood of the team sometimes, and I’m pretty good at it.”

Sparks said Carrera’s personality and demeanor, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Medina’s.

“Juan is usually more anxious and wired before a race,” he said. “He’s very intense, and the two help balance each other out.”

Carrera said his success at distance running has made him more confident in other areas in his life.

“Running has made me better at basketball, which was my first sport,” he said. “It has made me so disciplined in my eating habits and how I approach school.”

Medina said Carrera’s passion for basketball can sometimes be astounding.

“He’s a little obsessive when it comes to basketball,” he said. “He follows the NBA extremely close and knows all the stats.”

More known for his basketball abilities in high school, Carrera said other runners would question his motivation and drive for cross-country.

“I remember hearing the other guys saying that I wasn’t going to stay on the team for very long because I wasn’t going to get up for the early practices,” he said. “That just motivated me more to give it my all.”

Sparks said both runners are essential to the Salukis’ future success.

“They are the cornerstones of the future,” he said. “If we are going to be successful in 2014, ’15 and ’16, they must perform and develop. I couldn’t be more excited for the future.”

Carrera said he spoke with Medina about the future after the conference championships.

“After crossing that finish line, finishing ninth and 10th back-to-back, I realized that we could do something special,” he said. “I told Oscar that we had a chance to be named all-conference all four years in a row. Something like that doesn’t happen too often.”

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