Sept. 2, 2005
Over the past five years, University of New Mexico head cross country coach Matt Henry has quietly been at work in Albuquerque assembling one of the finest programs in America. Using his greatest natural resource - New Mexico high school distance runners - Henry has brought Lobo cross country back into the national spotlight.
In 2004, the men of New Mexico served notice of the program's remarkable resurgence with a magnificent performance in the team's first NCAA Championship appearance since 1988. Using a top seven that was comprised entirely of New Mexico high school graduates, the Lobos placed ninth as a team - the best finish in school history. Santa Fe native Matt Gonzales finished second in the final race of his illustrious career, marking the best individual performance by a Lobo in NCAA history. True to the blue-collar nature of Henry's program though, it was a dramatic late surge by the final scorer, fifth-year walk-on Sean Flaherty of Albuquerque, which propelled the team into the top-10.
The UNM women, meanwhile, made strides of their own last fall. Leading a promising young group, junior Jacquelyne Gallegos (Pojoaque, N.M.) earned all-region honors en route to her second individual trip to the NCAA Championships. Gallegos' performance at the Mountain West Conference meet was the best by a Lobo in over a decade and gave the UNM women a first team all-conference honoree for the second straight season.
The 2005 season will feature challenging campaigns of great interest and opportunity for the New Mexico men and women. Fifth-year seniors Cameron Clarke (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Nate Clem (Albuquerque, N.M.) return to lead the new-look UNM men, which will have to overcome the loss of five of its starting seven from a year ago, including Gonzales, a two-time cross country All-American. Clarke and Clem, however, will be joined this year by a hungry group of runners, looking to establish their own legacy in the Land of Enchantment.
Gallegos' return for her fifth and final season in cherry and silver could be the spark that ignites an explosive UNM women's team this fall. After having her 2002 season ruined by the injuries suffered in a near-fatal car accident, Gallegos was finally granted a medical redshirt and extra year of eligibility by the NCAA in the late spring of 2005. With Gallegos back atop a starting seven lineup that includes fellow senior Janice Tosa (Jemez Pueblo, N.M.) along with juniors Timmie Murphy (Farmington, N.M.) and Riann Lucy (Albuquerque, N.M.), New Mexico could emerge as one of the most surprising teams in the MWC this season. A large group of up-and-coming young runners, led by sophomores Lindsay Barr (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Stasia Ploskonka (Cedar Crest, N.M.), will bolster what could be the best women's team in the Henry Era.
The UNM men and women open the season at home on Sept. 10, hosting the annual Lobo Invitational, which Henry has developed into the biggest cross country event in the state of New Mexico. Following a tune-up at New Mexico State, the Lobos then embark on a rare tour of the South with trips to Louisiana and Alabama for the LSU and Auburn Invitational meets. The schedule is capped by the MWC Championships in Fort Collins, Colo., NCAA Mountain Region Championships in Provo, Utah and national championship meet in Terre Haute, Ind. once again.
Prior to the season, Henry sat down and shared his thoughts on the state of the Lobo cross country program:
What impact did the success of men's team last year have on your program as a whole and what does their performance say about the cross country talent in the state of New Mexico?
"I don't think a lot of people even know how big that was for our program, but I'm very, very proud of what we did last year. We did do something special and it was double fun knowing that we got there with homegrown guys. I'm always going to look in-state for our cross country runners. I think this state has some of the best distance runners in the nation and I think what that group did at NCAAs last year proved it. I've always said that if we can just keep our top runners home, we can be successful. I do know that last year was a special year and we're losing some key guys from that group, but I think what it did for our whole program was that people saw the kind of success they had and said, `why not me...I can be as good as those guys.' Right now there are some talented young runners in the state and I'm hoping they remember what those guys were able to do last year and say, `hey, I want to be a part of that too.'"
How valuable was it for some of your younger runners on the men's side to have been able to train with a world class athlete like Matt Gonzales over the past few years?
"I think for us training-wise, our guys gained some real insight into what it takes to perform at that level. To be able to do what you want do at meets, it has to happen in practice. What Matt did last year was he picked up the tempo and everybody had to respond. Most of our young guys were there, they saw the results and now they know that this is the way it has to be."
Talk about senior Cameron Clarke -- he was a first team all-conference runner as a true sophomore and second team all-MWC last year - what role are you looking for him to take on this year?
"If you look at on paper, he should be our guy. He should be the one who's representing UNM as our number one runner. I've always said, if Cameron is able to put everything together, he could make people forget Matt Gonzales. That's how much talent he has. We're hoping he makes this his year."
Nate Clem is also a fifth-year senior - how has he improved over the years and what does he bring to the table?
"He's one of those guys who has benefited the most from what we did in 2004. I think he realized last year, `oh, so this is how you do this.' Nate came out of high school as primarily a 400-meter guy and he's moved up a little more each year. Nate has worked extremely hard though and I'm interested to see what he can help us do this year. As I've been talking to our guys on the team, everybody seemed to mention Nate's name as the one they worked out with this summer. I think he's developed into the backbone of this team this year. He's the guy that has been motivating people and keeping the foundation together over the summer."
Talk about some of the other promising runners you have in your men's program - Steven Martinez (Pojoaque, N.M.), Juan Ortega (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Joseph Garcia (Belen, N.M.) have all gained valuable race experience over the past few years - what progress do you expect out of them in 2005?
"Those guys are no strangers to racing now. All of them had the opportunity to run with that group last fall. Of course Steve had the biggest impact of those three, but his problem has always been trying to stay healthy. I'm hoping that Steve has gotten thought that period of being hurt because I think he can do some good things for us. Juan is a junior now after kind of being just a nice little freshman or sophomore the last two years. He's one of those guys who's going to be able to step up and define his role this year, and help us a lot. If we can keep him away from some of the shin problems he's had - wow - he's going to be good. Joe had a chance to get his feet wet last year as a freshman and towards the end of the outdoor track season he showed that he could be very, very competitive. That's really encouraging for me. I think he could really be a cornerstone for us this fall."
Who else on the men's team do you see making an impact in your top seven this fall?
"We've got a good group of guys who are eager to get in there and do something. Chris Bratton (Albuquerque, N.M.) has been with us for a few years, as has Frank Hemingway (Las Cruces, N.M.) and Mike Deason (Las Cruces, N.M.). I think they all could help us quite a bit. Mike Smiel (Albuquerque, N.M.) is another one who could make an impact. He's been working with us the past couple years and now has a chance to possibly make that top seven group. Out of our new people, we're looking for Matt Cash out of Los Lunas and Matt Shaughnessey from San Diego to do something. We're still getting to know them, but we're hoping they're both able to contribute this fall. We've got a pretty big, competitive group and I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do."
How important was it for your women's team to get Jacquelyne Gallegos back for a fifth year?
"That was huge. Her presence is obviously going to really help us a lot. We think this could be one of the best women's teams we've had here and it all starts with Jackie."
Has she surprised you with the way she's rebounded from the car accident?
"At the time, when it all happened, I thought that Jackie may be done. I don't know if it was necessarily physical, but for so long she just was not responding or doing what we knew she could do as a runner. That was hard on her and us. We all knew that she was capable of being one of the best in the country and at the time she couldn't even make our top nine. That was tough, but not now. I know she's found out some things about herself, she knows how to stay healthy and she's just the real deal."
What's her role on the team and what are your goals for her this fall?
"Jackie is a little more vocal than she used to be, but she's still very quiet. That doesn't make any difference to me though. She doesn't have to say one word because I guarantee she is a fireball when it comes to practice. She's the leader all the time and she sets the tone for practice. She says enough with how hard she works to let everyone around her know that this is what you have to do to run at this high of a level. I'm hoping that she can make a run at the conference title, get through regionals, qualify for NCAAs and have the special day there that we think she's capable of. Knowing how much she and her parents have worked to help get her that extra year of eligibility, she's probably realized how valuable this opportunity is for her."
Your women's team has gradually improved each season and this year you have an All-America candidate in Jacquelyne Gallegos back, a solid group of returning lettermen and some promising newcomers - could this be one of the most surprising teams in the league this fall?
"I'm hoping so. I think this is one of the best groups of girls we've ever had. We've got some experienced runners in Jackie, Janice and Timmie, and that's what you always need. You need some older people who know what it's all about to form the core of the team. I've always felt that our women have been capable of doing it, but we just haven't taken that next little step. I'm hoping we can see that we have a good group this year and decide to take advantage of what we have."
"Timmie and Janice have been with us for awhile now and they've grown in the sport the way we've wanted them to. I think they've both had some bad luck with their health, but right now they're ready to go and help lead this team. Riann is somebody who has been one of our top runners over the past two years and we expect her to be a key member of the group this year as well. If all three of those girls are ready to go and can stay healthy, they could really help our women's team do some nice things."
"Lindsay was definitely one of the people who showed us the most last year and she is going to be big for us. She didn't compete much in high school, so she's still new to the sport and has a lot of potential. Stasia is probably one of the best athletes that we have overall, but she's still learning distance running. Leslie never was very healthy last year, but we're hoping she can get back to form this year. We definitely recruited those girls to fill the void when Jackie and Janice are gone, so we're looking for good results out of them this year."
Which of your newcomers do you see challenging for a spot in the top seven or developing into impact runners for you in their first year?
"We've got quite a few new girls this year. Some of the girls we're really looking at for this fall are Yesenia Archuleta (Grants, N.M.), who was the number two cross country runner in the state last year, and Becky Green out of Arlington. Allison Easton is new with the program from Ohio and we've heard some very good things about her. Junior college transfer Roxann James is a product of Gallup High School and we're really hoping she'll be ready to go and play a solid role this fall."
How has the Lobo Invitational meet developed over the past five years and what are your thoughts about the field this fall?
"I'm really happy with that. Personally, I think this year is probably the best meet we've been able to put together. I'm really excited about the teams that we have coming in. At that early of a date, it really is an excellent meet. We're going to be able to tell some things about our group right off the bat. I know that Texas Tech and UTEP probably have the best groups that they've had in a long time on the men's side. They are really fine teams and it will be interesting to see what we can do against them. Of course Colorado State, Adams State and Western State are always tough. On the women's side, Texas Tech's and Colorado State's girls have been able to push us around a little bit over the past few years, but I'm anxious to see what our girls can do that day."
"We also have a great 5K run that day that's open to anybody in the community that wants to come by and run a very unique course, then watch a lot of outstanding high school and collegiate races. This really is a big day for cross country in the state of New Mexico. We've had a great response to this meet over the years and that means a lot to me to have the state come out for this meet."
Are you still happy racing at the UNM North Golf Course?
"I really am. To me, it's the best spectator course in the country. If people are willing to walk a short distance to some of the key points, they can really see a lot of the race. That means a lot to me too. I don't think fans have gotten a chance to know cross country because traditionally you watch the runners leave, then stand around waiting for them to finish. In this case, you really can go out there and actually observe what is going on in that race. The North Course is the University of New Mexico and it's our home."
Why did you decide to take the team to meets at LSU and Auburn this year?
"LSU has been coming to our meets here for five years and we felt like we owed them a return visit. We'll be running in some different conditions and our kids are going to have to deal with the humidity, but I like that we get to go out of our region and match-up against teams we don't see that often. I think there's an education in it. I know some coaches like to keep their schedule the same each year, but I think it's nice that we're getting out to LSU and Auburn. We're going out there for a reason though. We want to race against some new teams and have some good performances before the conference and regional meets. We've got basically three weeks to prepare for conference after the Auburn meet and I'm hoping we use that time to get everyone healthy and focused on the most important meet of the year."