On May 25, roughly 3,000 seniors will say good-bye to Cornell for the last time at commencement as they move on to find jobs, travel the world, or head to grad school. Many of these graduates will take with them fond memories of friends, parties, sporting events, choral performances, or academic honors. Few, however, will leave knowing that they helped build a program and bring the Red national recognition. For the 20 seniors on the men’s and women’s track teams, however, this is exactly the legacy they will leave behind when they receive their diplomas.
When these senior athletes arrived at Cornell as freshmen in the fall of 1999, they had high hopes, but relatively few credentials.
“My first year here, I hadn’t recruited any of the freshmen and I was doubtful that they would amount to much of anything,” said men’s head coach Nathan Taylor. “They had some fair performances in high school but nothing truly outstanding and, as with most freshmen, it was a very difficult transition, and many of them struggled for their entire first year.”
Perhaps these struggles and the frustration of initially losing to Ivy League and Heptagonal rivals early in their careers inspired these seniors to work harder than their competition to make it to the top. Or perhaps they were just diamonds in the rough. Whatever the reason, this year’s graduating class of track athletes has done more to lead their teams, produce league championships, and bring the Red into the national spotlight than virtually any class before them.
“Working with this class, I’ve seen them get better every year as athletes,” said Taylor. “They have become more serious about themselves as athletes. They have sacrificed more each year in an effort to become as good as they can be.”
During their first seasons as Cornell athletes, these seniors saw the women’s team take third, and the men, seventh place at the indoor Heptagonal championships. In the meet, then-freshmen Katy Jay and Natalie Whelan got their first tastes of championship competition. Jay, a state champion from Mitchell, Nebraska, ran as a member of the third place 4x400m relay, and Whelan held a spot on the second-place 4x800m team. None of this year’s senior men placed at the meet. Since, seniors on both teams have devoted themselves year-round to improving themselves and their teams.
Over the next three years, both teams steadily improved as they strove to reach their ultimate goals of winning the Ivy League and Heptagonal championships. As sophomores, Travis Offner recorded a fourth place finish in the pole vault and Brett Coffing took third in the shot put to help the men move up two spots into fifth place overall at the indoor Heps championships. Jay, Whelan, Caitlin Ramsey, and other classmates on the women’s team contributed top times on the track and marks in the field to beat Ivy foes in league competition and place in national meets at the University of California Irvine and at the Long Beach Invitational.
These successes whetted the appetites of the athletes in this class and coming into their junior year, they were hungrier than ever to finally capture the Heps and titles which had eluded them since starting at Cornell. That year, the women finally broke through, winning both the indoor and outdoor Heps titles — their first since 1997. And, though the men did not emerge as champions, they were on the cusp of victory, placing fourth in the outdoor championship by a slim margin.
Powering their teams throughout that season were members of the junior class. Jay led the women by setting seven individual school records and anchoring five more record-breaking relay teams. For her outstanding performances, she also earned the USTCA’s North East Regional Athlete of the Year and Ivy League MVP. Jay alone did not win these championships, however; the entire women’s team was bolstered by record-setting juniors. Tina Davis, Carlan Gray, Sarah Herskee, Conniel Arnold, and Whelan all ended up in the Red record books that year.
Junior men also gave everything they had to lead their team to its best Heps finish in years. Travis Offner set a new all-time Cornell record in the pole vault, and Quinton Carew, Mike Kiselycnyk, Barry Kahn, Offner, Scott Benowicz, Coffing, Derek Kingrey, Daryn Johnson, Mike Harbeck, Geoff Van Fleet, and Dan Dombroski all led the team in their respective events.
During the tough practices, victories, and losses that both teams experienced in their first three years together, a tight bond had formed among teammates.
“Some of my favorite memories are just of spending time with teammates at practice and traveling to competitions,” said Harbeck.
Jay said similarly, “My favorite memories are always road trips with my team. The two that stick in my mind the most are the California spring trips and the trip to England with the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s and women’s teams.”
The friendships members of this class formed drove them to help one another improve in practice and give their best in meets. At no time was their camaraderie more evident than during this, their senior year. During the past indoor season and so far this spring, both teams have built winning streaks unparalleled in Cornell history. In finishes befitting only such a class, the seniors led both the men’s and women’s teams to dual indoor Heptagonal championships and unprecedented success at the ECACs and at the prestigious Sea Ray Relays and Penn Relays.
For the first time since 1978, the men’s team won Heps, and the women repeated as Heps champions along with placing a record-high fifth place at ECACs. Additionally, the accomplishments of Cornell’s teams under the leadership of the seniors gained national recognition as the USTCA Power Rankings placed the women’s team as high as 18th, and the men 24th in the country.
Crediting his seniors with leading their team to victory and national prominence, Taylor said, “Their biggest accomplishment was the evolution of their leadership. Without this evolution, the synergism that is needed to develop a successful team never materializes. The crowning glory to this was the Heps championship, Cornell’s first in 25 years.”
In the coming weeks, these seniors will lead their teams for the last time into the outdoor Heps championships, ECACs, IC4As, and NCAAs. The outlook for championship performances is high, and as they have done for the past four years, these seniors will give everything they have to come home victorious.
But regardless of how well it does, this class can leave Ithaca with a sense of accomplishment knowing that it helped take their teams and Cornell to the top.
Archived article by Everett Hullverson