To understand just how big the strides the men's cross country team has taken, you have to go back to the 2006 season, the year before head coaches Paul and Meaghan Harkins arrived at New Mexico State. "The year before we got here they only had six men on the roster," said Coach Harkins. That's six out of a possible 20 spots. Over the course of the past three seasons, the Aggies have been able to fully stock their men's roster. "Now we have 20, we're maxed out."
Expectations back then were virtually non-existent. "I remember the first year we were here when we beat Louisiana Tech on the men's side," recalled Coach Harkins. "The guys were like, "Yay! We beat one finally. And we [coaches] were like, "What? You beat one? We need to do a little more than that."
The program has grown exponentially since that first season when not finishing last place was cause for celebration. "Raising the level of expectations is what we've been trying to do and the athletes have really bought into it as well," said Coach Harkins.
No longer an afterthought at New Mexico State and no longer an afterthought in the WAC, the men's team has displayed their potential the past two seasons finishing a program-best 4th place at the WAC Championship meet last season and the year before, in 2008, winning the Arizona State Invitational, the men's team's first victory in several seasons.
Heading into the 2010 season, the goal is the program's first conference championship. Their inspiration? Their female counterparts who won the title for the first time last season after finishing fourth the season prior as was the case with the men's team last season. Not only do the Aggie women provide inspiration, but they also provide a healthy amount of motivation for the men's team as well. Coach Harkins chuckled as he explained, "They didn't like being passed up by the women last year. They definitely want to raise their game as well and they have."
One of the other hurdles the men's team has to overcome is the fact that they only have the cross country season to run, whereas many of their fellow WAC competitors also compete in the men's track and field season in the spring. New Mexico State no longer sponsors a men's track and field team. "The men know that cross country, despite the fact that they don't have a track season technically, is a year round thing and they want to make sure they still get a few opportunities to compete and in order to do that they've got to be in shape when those races come around," said Coach Harkins. That obstacle has helped the men's team prepare even more for the cross country season. "The level of commitment has grown, the level of dedication, their level of expectations of themselves, it's just been unbelievable."
As is the case on both the men's and women's teams, there isn't much talent to have to replace from last season's teams as the men only lose one runner. This year's team is anchored by junior Ian Ruybalid who placed ninth at the conference championships last season earning himself a Second Team All-WAC honor to go along with his Second Team All-WAC honor from 2008. Ruybalid is the first male Aggie distance runner to earn All-Conference honors in back-to-back seasons since Leon Garcia accomplished the feat in the 1971-72 seasons and the first ever to earn the honors as a freshman and sophomore. "That's a pretty big feat in itself but the fact that he did it as a freshman and sophomore means he could potentially be alone on that list after two more seasons which would be awesome," said Coach Harkins.
Along with Ian is his younger brother Jonah who finished 16th at the WAC championships and will be a sophomore this season. Also helping the Aggies as they aim for their first title are junior Kevin Taft, sophomore Rob Selph and sophomore Ryan Fenton who finished 17th at last year's conference championship meet. "Kevin has done an amazing job since last cross country season," said Coach Harkins. "He's worked his tail off and had some great PRs last year in the track season and now he looks like he's going to be one of our top four guys."
The Aggies also return junior Anthony Ellis who redshirted last season. "Getting Anthony Ellis back from his redshirt year last year is going to be a big boost to the team," said Coach Harkins.
Also making a case for the top spots will be sophomore Terry Williams and junior Victor Sanchez. "Terry Williams and Victor Sanchez did a lot of great work over the summer as well," said Coach Harkins.
The Aggies have also added some new faces who will look to score points for the Aggies this season as the welcome freshmen Tyler Williams (Burlington, Wash.), Bryan Simison (Yakima, Wash), Jonathan Teske (Alamogordo, N.M.) and James Viarreal (Pojoaque, N.M.). "Brian Simison was a 9:12 two-miler out of high school, he was 4th at the state meet in the big class up in Washington which is a tremendous state for distance running. He's going to be a boost to our program as well," said Coach Harkins. "He could end up running in our top seven. Tyler Williams is another guy from just north of Seattle, he was third at state in the 3A division in cross country his senior year. He could add a big boost to our program as well."
Expectations are certainly high for the men's team with a veteran group returning along with the key freshmen additions. "They know they're capable of much more than where we finished at regionals last year (14th) and they want to break into the Top 10," said Coach Harkins.
"Right now we have eight guys running at or better than where our number one was running a year ago at this point," said Coach Harkins.
The Aggies will get their first opportunity to showcase their continued improvement as they open the season in Albuquerque this weekend at the Lobo Invitational.
"There's a lot of excitement, a lot of optimism and a lot of positivity right now and we're very, very thrilled to start the year."