UMass Lowell men’s cross-country look to defend title – Lowell Sun
Back in February, the UMass Lowell men’s cross-country team opened its condensed season, which was moved to the cold winter months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the first meet Feb. 6, to its last, where the team’s top two runners participated in the NCAA Championship on a hot day in Oklahoma, the Hawks enjoyed tremendous success, culminated by winning its third ever America East Conference title, and second in the past three seasons. On Saturday, the “normal” cross-country season begins with UML traveling to the University of Vermont for a multi-team meet. The entire River Hawks team that celebrated the championship back in March are all returning, making expectations high. According to graduate student Chris Alfond, a former North Middlesex Regional star, the team is prepared because they put the work in over the summer, after participating in the abbreviated spring track season.
“I’m fortunate to have the best teammates that the NCAA allows you to have,’ said Alfond. “We all stayed in Lowell pretty much all summer. We work and when we get back we go out for a run and do the other things like lift (weights), eat (right) and all of the fun things that go with that. Then we wake up the next day and do the process all over again. It’s a pretty bluecollar team.”
Alfond is coming off a season where he finished second at the AE Championship Meet, a year after finishing first. During the outdoor track season, he earned All-American status. Finishing ahead of him at the conference championship meet was Kyle Cloutier. A former Nashoba Regional High star, Cloutier finished the 8K race at 24:39.31. Both qualified for the Nationals, with Alfond taking 70th. Cloutier didn’t finish due to the excessive heat. “I’ve known Kyle since high school and he’s always been a real pain in my side,” said Alfond. “But honestly, now that he’s my teammate, I love having him around. He’s one of the toughest kids. You can see it in his face whenever he races. The kid is just a competitor. He’s as tough as nails and puts in all of the work. That’s really our M.O. and that’s how we get things done.”
Longtime head coach Gary Gardner is no stranger to success in this arena. Entering his 22nd year at the helm, he has coached 173 All-Americans in cross-country, as well as track-and-field. When it came to putting this dynamic team together, however, guys like Alfond and Cloutier needed to be molded.
“They weren’t high school superstars and they weren’t highly recruited guys,” said Gardner. “They came in here and just really bought into our system and worked incredibly hard. They make good decisions, whether it be academically, socially or athletically. They really want to be successful student-athletes. I’ve been very lucky to have kids who are like that and who are good leaders like that.” When Alfond broke into the program, the team’s top runner was Paul Hogan. The Burlington native was an All-American in track, an AE Conference champions and finished 60th at the NCAA Cross-Country Championship meet.
Alfond got a chance to see Hogan work his magic firsthand attending the NCAA Championships. Gardner always believed the young prospect could follow in his all-stars lofty footprints.
“(Coach) said ‘You can be here one day,’” Alfond said. “’ I was like ‘oh yeah, sure’. Then I started thinking about. He started putting these ideas in my head. It’s really all about trusting the process. You put in the work and you have teammates who also like to work, so it all kind of just worked out in the end. Obviously I have gone further than I thought I could possibly go, but it’s been a fun ride.”
While this year’s team will center around Alfond and Cloutier, there’s a large cast of talented runners right behind them making this team extremely tough to beat. Amesbury senior Drew Everett finished third at the AE Championships. Sophomore Jake Velazquez placed 17th, earn the AE Most Outstanding Rookie Award. Also in the mix includes graduate students Daniel Cosgrove (Boxford), Benjamin Drezek (Cumberland, RI) and Derek Holmes (Marshfield) and junior William Cole-French (BC High). Incoming freshman Nate Deangelo (Bristol, Conn) has also opened a lot of eyes thus far. “Any number of those guys could be our top two guys any given day,” said Gardner, noting that Drezek) made it to the NCAA Championships two years ago as an individual. “Any of those guys can be up there in our top four or five, so we’re pretty lucky. This is probably the deepest team we have had. If (anyone) has an off day, they are interchangeable. That’s what you need in any sport to be really successful.” “It’s great to have a couple of really good athletes,” he added. “But if you can get 8-10 great kids, you know you’re going to have a hard-working, healthy group who are all ready to go on any given day.”