Fans were not being treated to an Oakland soccer game and did not witness the basketball or baseball team sweat through an offseason workout. Instead, the fans were there to see the men’s and women’s cross-country teams in the annual Golden Grizzly Invitational to kick off the season.
While those in attendance were able to catch a glimpse of some of Oakland’s top runners, opponents were not as lucky as OU placed four men in the top 10 and five women in the top 15.
Golden Grizzly Invitational
“I’m very happy,” Head Coach Paul Rice said. “It was really warm today and we talked about being smart early on and finishing hard, and it looks everybody was able to do that.”
Brittni Hutton, a senior, blazed through the women’s 4K with a time of 14:33.7 to capture the top spot, while fellow senior, Jami Rodes, was close behind, clocking 14:47.8 to finish second.
In the men’s 6K, George O’Connor, a freshman, won his first ever collegiate race with a time of 19:15.3 and redshirt sophomore Nathan Ziolko tallied a 19:22.1 to take second.
While cross-country is a sport where individual successes are magnified, Oakland’s squad is one where the team is the focus.
“That is one of the things about cross country that people don’t realize, it really is more of a team sport than an individual sport,” Rice said. “The message we try to send to our athletes is that if there is ever a moment in a race where you need something to fight for, do it for your teammates, because they will be doing the same thing.”
Rice preaches success as a team in everything he does with the program. While he sits down with each runner individually to go over a game plan to help their individual times, he refuses to play favorites or even rank his athletes.
The Oakland cross-country team has no captains. Instead, Rice tells all members of the squad that they are on equal footing and are expected to be leaders. This team-first philosophy is the key for Rice to reach the ultimate goal of winning a league title.
“We have the ability, if we train hard and stay healthy, we can definitely do it,” Rice said. “We’ve got enough senior leadership to bring the young guys and young ladies along, and some freshman to help us as well, and that makes a great package.”
With their eyes set on a Summit League Championship, Oakland does not have to look far as it will be held in its own backyard. In late October, all members of the Summit League will descend on Katke-Cousins Golf Course on campus, where Oakland is hosting the conference championships.
“We don’t have to travel, which is huge,” Hutton said. “We can bring out a lot of our home fans to cheer us on … it’s going to be awesome.”
Coach Rice agreed with the benefit of a lack of travel and pointed out that the team will be able to train throughout the year on the championship course in workouts.
Experience pays off
Rice has been at the helm of the Oakland program since 1997, guiding the Golden Grizzlies to three Summit League championships and helping produce 27 all-conference runners.
The four-time Summit League Coach of the Year graduated from OU in 1993. After earning all-conference and all-region honors as a cross country runner, he also served as the captain of the team for three years when they were still known as the Pioneers.
Rice’s experience and passion for Oakland is evident to his runners, not only in the way shares his past, but also in the ways that he helps their own careers.
“Coach Rice believed in me, he made me say I could do it, and he gave me the confidence and strength I needed,” Hutton said. “He is an amazing coach and I will forever be in his gratitude. He really cares about this program and he loves the athletes.”
When talking to potential recruits for the team, Rice dips into fond memories of his alma mater.
“I hope they can appreciate the longevity that I’ve had here,” Rice said. ”I can say I watched this building go up, and was here for the Division II to Division I transition. I have a great pride for this school and it really is a thrill for me for to be the coach here.”
This weekend, the cross-country teams are traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind. for the IPFW Invitational. The teams will have four more meets between this weekend’s event and the Summit League Championships on Oct. 27.
Contact Senior Reporter Tim Pontzer via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @timothy_pontzer