METZ, FRANCE - The Yellow Jacket sports season is done for the academic year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep talking about it. After looking at Track and Field last week, Yellow Jacket Roundup is moving on to take a breeze through men’s and women’s Cross Country this week. A blast from the distant past, but their season is actually coming up on us pretty swiftly. Before we know it, the year starts anew with football, volleyball, and, of course, cross country.
RamblinWreck.com is one of my go-to sources for general info about non-revenue sport, unsurprisingly. The Georgia Tech Athletic Association releases do a fine job of publicizing notable events, scores, of course, and, most uniquely, publicizing the awards and achievements of players and teams, be it All-American selectees, award winners, or other significant accomplishments. When starting to look back on the 2017 Cross Country season, I went back to my notes, but also opened up the website pages for the team. The content of six of the first seven articles on the men’s page is explicitly about Nahom Solomon. In the seventh, he’s the first named athlete. You might say he was important to this team.
So, what’s the latest with Nahom Solomon? At the risk of this article becoming largely about him, it’s important to discuss what’s happening to the man that led the Tech men in every cross country event in the last two years. Now, Solomon has one season of indoor track remaining, which he will utilize next year during graduate school, but he, one of Tech’s all time greats, has exhausted his cross country eligibility. Solomon will not be running with the Jackets in the fall.
The Yellow Jackets, with one of their best runners ever, finished just eighth in the conference last year. Behind a trio of elite squads, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State, only the Jackets ranked in the top five regionally headed into the championship meet, on the men’s side, that is. As for the women, they were on the back half of a dense cluster of teams jockeying for position in the middle of the standings. They finished just twelfth overall at the conference championships. Coach Alan Drosky was surely softening the blow when he elaborated about how competitive the conference was and that the Jackets had an off-day, but he’s not entirely wrong. Tech was coming off a convincing win the previous meet in Alabama before they got knocked down a peg in Louisville. When Solomon returned to Tuscaloosa for the regional, he ran a fantastic race, vaulting him to yet another national championship berth. Nevertheless, coming up short when the races matter most is not the ideal way of competing.
That said, getting eighth and twelfth in the conference, respectively, is not quite the dire sentence it appears to be. It’s not great, but the fast that the Jackets were pegged at a respectable, though not elite, no. 33 and no. 35 ranking for the men’s and women’s teams shows that, well, just as in the ever-rising tide of baseball, to choose just one example, the Atlantic Coast Conference is not just a basketball conference. The three teams I called elite are some of the class of the country. When you compete at the highest level in the ACC, you compete for national championships. Just look at North Carolina in Omaha now if you don’t believe it. Or, say, Clemson in the football playoff. Dare I say the Tech women’s tennis team belies the same point? Athletic Director Todd Stansbury is not wrong when he espouses this view. However, Tech, which has even less teams than most with which they compete for conference championships, must hone the teams we do have in order to win.
I view the cross country teams the same way I view our women’s swimming and diving. And that is that we have some really fine top-end talent. There’s a lot left to wonder about after that. And, so, sometimes, they, as a group, look a little outmatched. The conference meet was one of those times. However, with hundreds of teams competing across the country, they’re well-regarded in their top 35 positions. It’s easy to lose sight of that in light of a lot of the competition we face.
Looking ahead, losing Nahom Solomon is brutal. However, Christian Bowles, track and field stud Avery Bartlett, Frank Pittman and Matt Munns all finished in bunch around 28th place. Three of them return, along with a couple others that run right in their neighborhood. Having some of this talent take that last step would be tremendous for a team that needs to replace a legend. Losing Munns, Solomon, and Alex Grady is notable, but the Jackets aren’t running on empty. Couple returning talent with a couple career runs at the conference meet, and the men are somewhere closer to in-the-hunt. Of course, some recruiting talent wouldn’t hurt. The interesting thing about the Tech brand is that it’s especially appealing to non-revenue sports athletes. They are extraordinarily attuned to the after-college benefits. Not many people can turn something like track, swimming, or volleyball into a tenable, lucrative employment opportunity. That’s why targeting athletes who fit Tech’s academic rigor is such an important step. A lot of smart kids run, show them why they fit at Tech. Refining that pitch is an unsung perk of the ongoing branding initiative of Georgia Tech Athletics. It doesn’t just affect football, basketball, and baseball. That rising tide lifts all ships, if not the non-revenue ones more so.
A lot of the same things apply to the women. Where they differ is in the talent they have returning in the fall. Though they finished just twelfth overall in the conference, that obscures some of the highlights. The Jackets put four runners in the top sixteen when they won in Alabama, their last full-team race before the disappointing run at the conference meet. Out of Amy Ruiz, Mary Prouty, Hailey Gollnick and Nicole Fegans, the Jackets only lose Gollnick. Fegans has three more years of eligibility. The women return a higher percentage of their key runners than the men, and, more importantly, don’t lose a generational talent. Again, healthy recruiting here with a more refined Tech pitch would help, but that’s up to Drosky. It’ll be intriguing to see it play out.
It would help Tech to be able to budget all sports scholarships at out-of-state levels, but that should improve with the latest athletics fundraising initiative. That has long been a millstone around the necks of Tech’s Group A Olympic sports* and will be nice to see that pitfall vanish. In the immediate future, Tech Cross Country will be middle of the pack in the conference. The men might slide back, while there’s more optimism for the women. They aren’t ready to compete for championships yet, but give it a year or two and it’ll be apt necessary to reassess.
Coming up next week: Women’s Volleyball
* Group A Olympic sports are the IOC’s highest-earning programs. These are the sports people most famously get excited for every four years and then largely pay no attention to in the interim. They include Athletics, Aquatics, and Gymnastics. Of course, Tech lacks gymnastics, but the point stands.
Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.