Fall Sports

Running to the Top: How Coach Turner Transformed the Cross Country Program

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Coach Turner speaks and prays with the Mount Saint Joe Cross Country team.

Three years ago, when the current seniors were freshmen, the cross country team was struggling. 2012 was the worst year in recent memory for the Gaels, with the team finishing 3-6 for the season and 12th at the league championship. The team’s top runner ran the course in a solid 17:50, but the team only had four runners who could finish under nineteen minutes. With only three seniors on the varsity team, this was a rebuilding year to say the very least.

Now, three years later, Coach Turner has done the impossible and won an MIAA Championship title.  I asked him a few questions about how the team has progressed from where they were a few years ago.  He said, “We have come extremely far. To have won an MIAA championship in my first three years of coaching is a blessing and a testament to the work of the guys in this program. We have kids who have dedicated themselves to excellence. That’s a special thing. ”

The beginning of the transformation of the program started after the 2012 cross country season.  Indoor track started a week after championships, and the distance team members met their new coach, Mr. Phil Turner, who was beginning his first year of teaching at MSJ. He wasted no time implementing his new standards for the team. The one-mile warm-up was replaced by a three-mile run, and the fifteen minutes of stretching before workouts was cut down to five. The first practice immediately built on this rigorous warm-up with four 100-meter sprints and then 4×800 meters at controlled times.

Coach Turner saw potential in the team that fall and began to push the team through the winter and spring. He hoped to build them into contenders for a top-three finish in cross country next fall.

After productive track seasons under Coach Turner, the cross country team returned in the fall of 2013 with him now as head coach. The team appeared to be in good shape after having practiced two days a week during the summer at Patapsco State Park.

Coach Turner decided to test their fitness by starting the season with a two-mile time trial. Even with the summer training, the team was not where he wanted it to be. Sophomores were passing the top seniors. Earlier that spring the team had five runners under 11 minutes for the two mile, and now they only had three under 12 minutes.

Coach Turner saw that more needed to be done and started having practice off campus at Patapsco during the school year. These were hard practices that included five hill sprints that lasted for three minutes and eight-to-nine-mile runs on hilly trails.

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Photo Credit: Milesplit Maryland

The team worked hard that fall and had many personal records. Four runners beat the time of the top runner from the year before. The team finished 6-3 but finished fourth at championships, just missing the third-place trophy that Coach Turner thought they could win.

The track season through winter and spring was very eventful that year. The team tied for the outdoor regular season championship and distance runner Dominic Genuario set a new school record in the mile.

The next year, the team was completely new. Five of the top seven runners had graduated, but this was no concern to Coach Turner. Track season had brought the arrival of sophomore Justin Russell and freshman Alex Whittaker, who emerged as the team’s top runner.

Now a year older, they, along with three-time varsity runner Dan Jordan, team captain Jacob Campitelli, improving sophomore Carter Williams, and team favorite Todd Skintges, looked to win that third-place or second-place trophy for the first time in a decade.

Sadly, that season fell apart after Carter, the team’s 2nd best runner, suffered a stress fracture in his foot late in the season. That, along with some struggles for Jordan and unpredictability for Skintges had the Gaels finish sixth in the conference that year.

Last year was chalked up as a rebuilding year of the team because they only lost three of its seven runners.  However, it should have been a much more successful one. Coach issued an ultimatum: practice will be held three days a week, and if you want to be on the team, you have to show up to 80% of the practices. The team stepped up to the challenge and had more people at practice on the worst day then they did on the best day a year before. He commented, “We never failed to have fewer than fifteen kids at a summer run, and we ran really early in the morning. I left every run exhilarated, knowing that we have a culture of distance runners at our school.” By working them hard that summer, Coach Turner seemed to be trying to solve his problem of having the team break down at the end of the season. By getting in solid miles during the summer, the runners would have a good base, avoid injury, and stay fit throughout the season.

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Photo Credit: Milesplit Maryland

It appears Coach Turner knew what he was doing all along.  The team had incredible success this year, including winning the Scorpion Crawl Invitation by a point against rival Loyola. They finished second at Georgetown Prep and Seahawk Invitational and fourth in the Bull Run (the hardest race east of the Mississippi). In the end, the Baltimore Sun ranked the Gaels fourth in the area. The team finished 6-1 and only lost to Loyola.

However, the greatest victory came at the MIAA championship meet when the team won the title.  This is the first ever Championship for the team and the only Championship that the school has won in the past two years.

Coach Turner has completely changed the culture of running on the team.  Originally, if you were a sophomore, there would be little to no chance that you would be on Varsity. Now, there are three sophomores, two juniors and two seniors on the Varsity team. Times have dropped significantly from the start of his coaching to now. Eight runners have run faster this year than the team’s top runner three years ago. The team also has also managed to get multiple JV runners under nineteen minutes, which is a good sign for the future of the team.

From Day 1, Coach Turner has tried to reshape the team into a championship contender. When asked how he managed to change the culture of running, he said, “My first goal was to get kids to love running. I wanted to share my passion for the sport and show the guys what it means to love to run. I did this by running each day with the team and even pushing the pace in workouts. I tried to show the guys what it meant to run not just for fun, but also with passion and heart. Once we had developed a program where the guys loved to run, it was not tough to get them thinking about their goals and developing dreams of being championship-caliber runners. ”

Cross country now is truly a meaningful sport at the Mount. As long as Coach Turner is still here, the cross country team will continue to improve and look to be one of the best teams in the state. When asked what the future holds for the team, Coach Turner said, “We have a base of really good kids and really good runners. They all love the sport and love the team. A combination like that is a coach’s dream.”