In the weeks heading into the 2018 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Cross Country Championships, rain has sent teams scrambling in a sport predicated on a steady pace over long distances.
Two weeks ago, the Southwestern University Pirates men's and women's cross country teams rushed to put together an improvised head-to-head meet with the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor after the University of Dallas Invitational was cancelled due to rain, costing the Pirates an opportunity to look at the University of Dallas and Austin College before Saturday's SCAC Championships.
The rains have also kept the Pirates from their preferred practice course at San Gabriel Park and have even introduced some chaos into the championships, forcing the SCAC to move the contest from Comanche Trace in Kerrville, Texas to an impromptu course on the campus of Schreiner University.
Undeterred by the surrounding uncertainty, Pirates Head Coach Andrew Diehl believes his teams are prepared for the weekend's task because they know the most important thing: themselves.
"Not knowing the course is a little unsettling, especially when knowing they're putting a course together not necessarily meant for a cross country race," Diehl said. "But any distance runner will tell you their biggest competitor is who they see in the mirror every day."
Southwestern has learned a lot about itself in a season Diehl described as one of growing pains for teams leaning on younger players. Five of the men's top six runners will return next season and the women's team flanks two seniors with three freshmen and a sophomore.
"To say we're inexperienced is an understatement," Diehl said. "We have lots of growing to do but it's encouraging to see how far we've come as a more tight-knit team."
This season has been a trial by fire for sophomore Will Lord and junior John Hattan, stepping into a leadership role next to senior Austin Morrison on the men's side; and freshmen Valerie Acosta, Emma McCandless, and Joanna Sheley on the women's team.
However, adding some water to something put through flames is the process for tempering steel. Diehl believe his young team will be better for it.
On the women's team, that means placing expectations on Acosta, who has shown flashes of promise this year.
"She's in a good position to perform her best this weekend," Diehl said. "I think she has an opportunity to set a personal best. All-Conference might be a stretch but hopefully we can give her a taste of how close she is to being at that level."
"A big key for us this weekend is Trinh," Diehl said. "This season we've worked really hard on having her pushing herself past what she perceives as her limits.
"She still has some untapped potential as a senior and it's going to be exciting to see, knowing it's her last one, how she'll be primed to have a really big race for us."
After taking the top seven finishes against Mary Hardin-Baylor, Diehl called this men's team one of the deepest and most talented of the past seven years with a realistic opportunity to challenge for third—which would be the highest finish of his tenure—with hopes of building to eventually running with conference leaders Colorado College and Trinity University.
The depth of talent behind lead runners Joshua Im and John Hattan is where Diehl sees the most promise.
"Josh and John are both in great shape, healthy, and ready to fun fast," Diehl said. "But your team doesn't do well because of two runners. Your team does well because it's well-rounded.
"Will [Lord], Nathan [Botros], CP [Shaulis], and Miles [Griffin] can really make the difference. That's not on any single one of them. It's on us as a team to make sure we're ready and put them in positions to run smart races so they perform well."
That's why the teams have been pushed harder than previous iterations, waking up for 6 a.m. runs, putting more miles and tougher workouts than before.
"It's a mental battle at this level," Diehl said. "When students come from high school to college, they go from 3.1 miles to 4.97 miles. It's an entirely different level of discomfort, pain, and tempo that requires a bigger mental push."
All season long, Diehl—with the senior leadership on hand—has pushed his young Pirates out of their comfort zone so that now, even with the course changing and conditions uncertain, they still feel right at home.