Cornell cross country is about to enter a new era. After a long period of separation between the men’s and women’s teams, the two programs are now united under the new head coach Mike Henderson for the 2019 season.
Henderson succeeds the recently retired Artie Smith on the women’s side. And on the men’s team, former cross country head coach Adrian Durant will shift his focus solely to men’s track and field.
When speaking about Smith, Henderson praised his predecessor.
“It’s a humbling honor [to succeed him],” Henderson said. “He’s done so many good things in his time, and his character, work ethic and commitment to the team have been unbelievable. Those are big shoes to fill for sure.”
Besides serving as the coach for both the men’s and women’s cross country teams, Henderson will also coach women’s track and field. Prior to accepting this increased responsibility, Henderson coached men’s track and field and men’s cross country as an assistant for the past two seasons. While this is certainly a major transition, it is one that Henderson said has gone smoothly so far.
“It’s been awesome,” Henderson said. “The programs were always pretty close — we always had the same schedule, shared the same practice times and locations. It wasn’t a drastic change, but it’s been awesome for me to get to know the women’s team even more … and work with them in their training and figure out how we can continue the progress they were making under coach Smith.”
Senior runner Taylor Knibb said she has also been comfortable with the change.
“It’s been more than smooth. I feel like everyone’s happy,” Knibb said. “Everyone’s been super open — it’s a little bit different — but everyone’s open to the change and excited about it, and I think it’s a positive impact for everyone on the team.”
Knibb also said the two squads joining forces comes with benefits.
“I think that each team can learn a lot from the other team,” she said. “We each have our strengths, and we each have areas in which we can improve, and I think that we complement each other well. … I think the fact that we’re a little more united helps.”
In 2018, the men’s team started out the season strong, notching first- and second-place finishes at the UB Stampede Invite and the Lehigh Paul Short Run. The Lehigh finish was particularly impressive as it came in a field filled with 44 schools.
But the men’s team faltered as the competition ramped up. At the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, the Red came in last as it notched only 203 points despite strong individual performances from senior Steve Neumaier and Tyler Fisher ’19.
At the final meet of the year — the NCAA Northeast Regionals — Cornell placed 16th out of the 34 schools in attendance. While it was an improvement from its finish in the Heptogonals, the Red failed to send any of its team members to the NCAA Championships.
Meanwhile, the women’s side fared slightly better. Cornell kicked off the season with the top-five finishes at its first three events, but it similarly stumbled at Ivy Heps, finishing in seventh, a regression from its fifth-place finish the season prior.
On the back of a phenomenal performance by Knibb, the Red ran very well at the NCAA Regionals. Out of the 243 competitors, Knibb’s time of 21:49 on the six-kilometer course was good for fifth place. This finish not only helped the Red secure a fourth-place standing at the event, but it also propelled Knibb to the NCAA Championships.
There, Knibb — the lone Cornell representative — was the 109th runner to cross the finish line out of the 255 athletes in the race.
“I’m not too happy with my race, so I’d love to come back and compete as a team,” Knibb said. “It was definitely a different experience being an individual … where the far majority of the runners have teams, and you’ve been running as a team this whole year. And so then, for you to have this change, and everyone else really doesn’t, it’s just a little bit different.”
This time around, though, the Red will compete at the Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana, to better prepare for the postseason.
With the cross country programs united under one leader, there’s hope that the Red can improve upon its results from last season while setting new standards in the future years to come. A new freshman class hopes to help in that endeavor.
Henderson said the incoming men’s class is “very large and talented” and should be a group that will “really shape and influence us for years to come.”
On the other hand, Henderson is not as familiar with the incoming class for the women’s team since he did not recruit them, but he has been impressed with what he has seen so far.
“They’ve been great teammates and really good in terms of bringing positive energy to practice everyday and contributing to the culture in a good way,” Henderson said. “If they keep that going for four years, and with the credentials they have from high school, I think we’ll be in a good place with them as well.”
Ultimately, Henderson has high aspirations for both of his teams as he seeks to improve Cornell’s postseason standings from last year.
“We want to take a big step forward in the conference level — I think we want to see both teams moving back into the top half, being competitive, sending people to nationals, picking up more people that are all-region, all-Ivy.”
“If we can continue to come together as an entire group and take steps forward, that’s going to be awesome,” Henderson added. “We’ve had some individual success the last few years, and now we just need to make it a collective success.”
The first couple of meets will be opportunities for newcomers to acquire some race experience before the season truly kicks off next month.
“The first meet is where a lot of our freshmen get back to running, and then next week, another group will run, and then we’ll get going full-speed in October,” Henderson said. “It gives ourselves some time to get to know the team and get to know everybody before we really get into the heart of our racing season.”
Cornell is set to start the season at the Yellow Jacket Invitational in Rochester, N.Y., on Saturday.