Former cross country runner Eric Speakman ended his legendary Stony Brook campaign with a bang, becoming the first Seawolves runner — man or woman — to earn multiple individual championships in the sport. Not only is he in elite Stony Brook company by himself, he is only the fifth runner in the history of the America East Conference to have achieved the feat.
So when he graduated in the spring of 2015, Speakman left big shoes to fill on head coach Andy Ronan’s team heading into the 2015 season.
“He set a standard, both in the locker room and obviously in the competitions for the people coming behind him,” Ronan said.
Now with that veteran experience both on and off the track gone, Ronan will look to other sources for both inspiration and success, something that the team struggled with last season because of the youth on the roster.
“That in itself will make us better, being older and being more mature physically and hopefully mentally,” Ronan said. “By all accounts, everyone had a good summer.”
That good summer will be crucial to improving the team’s fifth place finish from last season’s conference championships. But in all reality, the team was not too far away from third place.
Only 30 points separated Stony Brook from UMBC, which took that finishing spot. The Seawolves finished just a point behind New Hampshire for fourth.
Two runners finished in the top 20 in last season’s championship. Along with Speakman, who took home the crown, then-freshman Michael Watts took 17th. Ronan will look to the now-sophomore to be one of the leaders on this year’s squad.
“He’s a year older and a year more experienced, so I certainly expect him to have a role both in the locker room and on the track,” Ronan said. Watts will also bring a unique experience to the roster, as he ran at the USA Junior National Championships out in Oregon with some of the best runners in the country this past summer.
“If you have ambitions to run against the best in your sport, you have to be exposed to it,” Ronan said. “You’re going to walk away from that either excited, and wanting to return to that kind of environment, or you’re going to walk away saying ‘that’s not for me.’ ”
Watts walked away with a hunger for more.
“He wants to go back to the national championships,” Ronan said. “He saw how these other athletes performed and came away saying ‘I can do the things they’re doing.”
Even though he is a sophomore, an experience like that is very valuable to bring back to a team that may not have been exposed to that at all. The youngster, for that experience alone, will be looked upon to motivate the team to a better finish than they had a year ago.
“If [the runners] want to be successful, they’re going to grab onto things that Mike experienced,” Ronan said.
But it will not just be the sophomore that the 16th-year head coach and former Irish Olympian will be looking to when it comes to leading this squad.
Mitchell Kun and Chris Sauer, both seniors this season, were names that the coach also brought up to form the “influential threesome” as Ronan called it.
Kun struggled with health issues last season, but still posted some respectable results and will look to carry that into this season with a fully healthy body. He led all Seawolves with a 17th place finish at the Wolfie Invitational, an 8k race for the men’s team, and placed fifth at the Stony Brook Season Opener a year ago, in which the men’s team ran a 6k race.
Sauer is back for his final season as well, but did not post as many races as Kun. In fact, the senior only ran in the conference championships, placing 56th.
While the seniors do not have the credentials that Speakman brought to the team, they have the experience. In the end, however, it all depends on how many people take what the graduated runner brought to this team and put it into their own routines.
“The ones that want to be successful will pick up on [Eric’s routine] and hopefully bring it with them and pass it on to the next group,” Ronan said.
Whether it is a youngster like Watts, a more experienced runner like Kun or Sauer, or somebody else that takes the team by storm this fall, the role as model of excellence is now up for grabs with the two-time individual conference champion gone.
It all begins on Sept. 5, when the Seawolves host their Stony Brook Season Opener. The opening gun fires at 10:30 a.m.