Why rankings matter, or don’t: cross country’s keys to success

An inside look at what it’s like to be a member of the University of Portland cross country teams

By Emma Swett | September 19, 2023 4:23pm

The men's cross country team racing. Photo courtesy of Jason De Leon.

With both the men’s and women’s cross-country teams projected to finish first in the West Coast Conference this season they must be doing something right, right? A look into the long-standing success of the Pilots’ cross-country teams revealed the great perspective they have around the rankings, as well as their keys to success.

The WCC preseason poll was not the only one with the Pilots on top as the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association also has the men’s cross-country team ranked at number nine. 

And the success doesn’t stop there. The men’s team tallied three with the women tacking on four athletes to the 2023 All-WCC Preseason Team. From the men’s side, redshirt junior Jonas Gertsen, senior Matt Strangio and redshirt senior Bradley Peloquin all accumulated honors. While on the women’s side, redshirt junior Sam Prusse, redshirt junior Mie Nielsen, grad student Courtney Klatt and redshirt junior Laura Pellicoro also added to the list. 

This predicted and continued success isn’t new for the Pilots — it’s what keeps the program strong year after year. 

“Portland has a huge reputation in the running world,” redshirt junior Nico Grillo said. “Everybody knows about University of Portland in the running world. If you run cross-country or track in high school you know University of Portland and Rob Connor.” 

Men's cross country runner Nick Grillo.

by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Understanding that rankings vary throughout the season, the Pilots are putting in the work without focusing too much on the result. The teams work to balance knowing the success they're capable of without it being the emphasis every day. 

“You’re going to have nerves regardless. But you don’t want to build this goal up to be so big that you can’t sleep the night before and it’s controlling you mentally,” redshirt junior Katie Newton said, “I think we’re taking it one step at a time.” 

Women's cross country runner Katie Newton.

by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

The men’s and women’s teams both found unique ways to train and stay connected throughout the summer. While the men’s team found success staying on campus to train with the athletic facilities only being a short walk away, the women’s team found themselves spread around the globe this summer. With some girls going home to train and others participating in internships in new cities, this did not diminish their commitment to each other and their successes. 

“We do a couple team zoom calls to boost morale,” Newton said. “To remind each other we’re waking up every day over summer and going on our run for the other girls even though we aren’t together.

The men’s team held similar values — eating well, sleeping well and doing fun things together. In prior years a group of athletes had gone to altitude training over the summer, but this year the team found double workout days here in Portland just as rewarding.

“At the end of the day, these are the things that add up,” Grillo said. “At altitude you can do the training and get the oxygen benefits but that only lasts a certain amount of time."

It’s not just individual team training contributing to the teams’ successes, but also the culture created between the men’s and women’s teams. With running feeling like a 24/7 job, the athletes have an appreciation for the lifestyle they share. There are bonfires with s’mores, Salt & Straw ice-cream trips, combined group chats and a smile and a wave anytime they run past one another while training.

“They’re kind of hard to escape, but in the best way,” said Grillo, regarding the women’s team.

Members of the men's and women's cross country teams pose for a group photo. Photo Courtesy of the Pilots Cross Country Team.

The Pilots cross-country teams are starting the season with impressive results, with the men finishing 1st and the women finishing 4th at the Linfield Harrier Classic. Both teams are set to compete again on Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Oak Knoll Loop Run in Salem, Oregon where they will continue to take it one race and one day at a time. 

Emma Swett is a sports reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at swett25@up.edu