Early in the season, Southwestern University Pirates men's cross country head coach Andrew Diehl pointed his team in the direction it needed to go and handed the proverbial keys to the program to his three team captains.
"There's a quote that goes, 'bad teams, nobody leads; average teams, coaches lead; elite teams, players lead," Diehl said, referring to a motto of Minnesota Golden Gophers football head coach P.J. Fleck. "With this group, that couldn't be more true. This team took ownership of their training and the captains held them accountable."
Upperclassmen set expectations for how the team would come into the season and the captains set the tone for each practice, laying the foundations for how the team would conduct itself and compete.
"Even though running is an individual activity, this is a team sport," Morrison said.
From there, they traveled to San Antonio to compete in the Our Lady of the Lake Invitational, finishing fourth overall with the second-best time of NCAA DIII schools behind Trinity University.
If both meets set a foundation for the Pirates, Southwestern University's third competition at the Rhodes Invitational helped raise its ceiling. The Pirates placed ninth out of 21 teams, finishing fourth out of the NCAA DIII schools with a total score of 238.
"It was eye-opening for them to see themselves finish ahead of a few teams who beat us in regionals last year," Diehl said. "That was the moment the team realized how good they can be and how good they should be."
More importantly, it was what Diehl described as a breakthrough performance for Hattan, who led the Pirates for the first time this season, placing 16th overall with a time of 26:50.90 in the 8K run, averaging 5:24.1 per mile.
"For a guy who never broke 11:30 for a two-mile in high school to, by the end of this season, finish between a 5:15 and 5:20 pace for an 8K is pretty significant growth," Diehl said. "It shows how much work he and everyone else did over the summer."
The momentum continued at the University of Incarnate Word Invitational, where the Pirates finished fifth in a field of 11 teams and first overall amongst NCAA DIII teams, besting Abilene Christian, St. Thomas, Trinity, Texas Lutheran, McMurry, and Schreiner with 129 points through the rolling hills of Live Oak City Park.
After defeating the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in an impromptu head-to-head meet, the Pirates finished fourth in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championship meet with a team score of 104, led yet again by Hattan's sixth-place finish with a time of 26:27.591 and Im's time of 27:03.486, good for 14th. Both were named to the SCAC All-Conference Team.
"We didn't have a great day but we had an okay day. We were a little disappointed we didn't finish higher." Diehl said. "But sometimes that's the best form of motivation. It really woke us up to perform great in regionals."
The Pirates finished 15th in a field of 33 teams in the NCAA Division III South/Southeast Region Championship Meet with a total time of 2:21:25 for an average time of 28:17 in the 8K run. Two years ago on the same course, the Pirates ran a total time of 2:24:12 for an average time of 28:50.
Hattan set the pace for the Pirates, finishing 43rd with a time of 27:09.79. It was the Pirates' best men's individual performance at the region championship meet since Zach Freeland finished 32nd in 2010 with a time of 26:36.
"It was arguably one of the best seasons in program history," Diehl said. "Cumulatively, we ran faster and with six of our top eight runners returning, it's something we can build off of."
Diehl entrusted this group with the keys to the program and, with a successful 2018 season, they've rewarded him by keeping Southwestern University on a course of prosperity.