Augusta's Jacob Poston would not be kept from placing first at the 2020 Koala Classic despite a six-month pause from competitive running. The senior approached the starting line with the bottom half of his face covered and, over the next 23 minutes and 42 seconds, gradually broke away from a pack of more than 100 runners. Upon crossing the finish line, the closest resemblance to spectators were faint claps and cheers overheard from the parking lot. Winning races is nothing new to Poston, but there has been plenty of adapting for him and hundreds of other DII cross country runners to adjust to over the past six months.
During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there were doubts about the possibility of even having a DII cross country season. And while there is no NCAA championship this fall, the sport did return in a limited capacity after some notable adjustments were made. Masks and competition without fans are just two ways that runners have had to adapt.
At Augusta, uncertainty weighed on Poston before the Jaguars scheduled four meets in the fall.
"I remember when the season started, we weren't even sure if we were going to be able to compete," Poston told NCAA.com. "So it was kind of a relief to know we could get some meets in."
Prior to the Koala Classic, the team last competed in an outdoor track meet in early March — less than one week before 2020 NCAA spring sports were shut down. Among the competitions canceled were the Raleigh Relays, an event Poston had targeted to qualify for track and field nationals. Without it, he and his teammates were also left without an understanding of their fitness headed into the summer.
With schools and communal facilities closed down, finding access to weight rooms and tracks became difficult. Poston's improvisation to develop a baseline for the upcoming year was a time trial ... completed down the side of the road, using GPS to track his progress and distance. A lack of resources couldn't slow him down, even though Poston says his performance in the Koala Classic took him by surprise. Now, he's using this season to look ahead and prepare for the anticipated return of NCAA championships in future seasons.
Stephanie Cotter — Adams State
Stephanie Cotter was the individual DII women's cross country champion in 2019, on top of Adams State placing first as a team. Without a title to compete to for in 2020, it'd be easy to overlook a shortened season. Instead, the junior said that the abbreviated year is about "running for something bigger than yourself," echoing a sentiment from the Grizzlies' coaching staff.
The way Cotter and Adams State have embodied that message is by remaining flexible. One example of this is ASU moving from training together to running in groups of three or four people. Cotter explained that this has likely benefitted the seven freshmen on the roster, who now have extra breathing space when learning to run at a high altitude.
She also credited the team's collective effort, men and women, in following the program's COVID-19 protocols. Adams State produced zero positive test results ahead of its first competition — a bigger win in 2020 than any first-place finish.
"When you're working with a team, you have to be ready to adapt," Cotter said. "Working on a smaller scale, you definitely have to have a team mindset and be more team oriented and remember why you're looking at it on a two week basis rather than a two month basis."
At Adams State, its 2019 championship set the standard for what's expected during competition. But the team's approach to 2020 — a season unlike any other — stands out in its own regard.
Kyle Moran — Colorado School of Mines
Like Cotter, Moran ran for a championship last year as the Orediggers claimed the 2019 DII men's cross country title. But this season, Colorado School of Mines hasn't really been able to meet as an entire team.
Training has been off campus and the 30 student-athletes within the men's program have been broken into groups between four and six runners for workouts. Moran said he doesn't know most of the freshmen, strictly because he hasn't seen them.
"It's a lot like in the summer where you would usually meet every morning and whoever shows up, shows up. But it's kind of like a continuation of that because the practices kind of feel like they're just more summer practices," Moran said. "Everyone is showing up now, but it's not the whole team obviously."
Still, Moran believes that he and his teammates are running comparable times to some of their 2019 late-season training. And that's being done on off-campus trails while wearing a face covering.