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Monday, June 17, 2024

Going the Distance

Quietly, the University of Southern Indiana men’s cross country team has become one of the top Division II programs in the country. The Screaming Eagles have finished in the top 16 at the NCAA national meet every year since 2005, and have won nine Great Lakes Valley Conference titles in a row.

Mike Hillyard has coached the men’s cross country team at USI since 1998, a year after taking over the women’s team. Hillyard is a former USI cross country runner, and earned All-GLVC honors in 1991, when he finished 34th at the national finals. He ran for Dr. Bill Stegemoller, who started the cross country program at USI in 1979.

Under Stegemoller, USI won 11 conference titles and advanced to 12 NCAA Division II national finals. But even though Hillyard ran for Stegemoller, his coaching style is much different. Advances in technology have led to smarter training routines and have revolutionized the sport.

“Stegemoller was very old-school,” says Hillyard. “With a lot of the things we did, I look back and think ‘That should not have worked.’ But it did work, because the athletes would run through brick walls for him. They knew he cared about them.”

Older training methods used shorter practice distances with high intensity. Today, runners not only run more miles each week, but they also focus on body core strength.

“There have been a lot of advances in general knowledge,” says Hillyard. “I think the Internet has a lot to do with that. There is more information out there at the high school level and the college level. As a result, the whole sport has advanced. We aren’t in the dark, wondering what people are doing across the country.”

Hillyard and his two assistants, Mike Landy and Tristan Mannix, coach both cross country teams, as well as the men’s and women’s track and field teams.

Hillyard, a native of Norris City, Illinois, had originally planned to be a teacher and a high school coach, but realized quickly he did not enjoy it. So he came back to USI as a volunteer coach, and eventually took over both the men’s and women’s teams.

While a baseball or basketball coach makes in-game decisions that can affect the outcome, coaching cross country is different. Hillyard says success comes from proper preparation.

“On race day, there is not a lot I can say or do,” he says. “I can sit on the bus the whole race and the outcome will be the same. It’s like building a racecar. You build it, and when you mash the pedal, it is going to go as it is fast to built to go. That’s the way these guys are.”

Trent Nolan, a senior runner and F.J. Reitz High School graduate, agrees. He says a good coach has the right training philosophy.

“They get you ready to run fast at the right time,” says Nolan. “The training is all about pinpointing your peak on the right day.”

The USI runners practice in groups according to ability level. As runners improve over time, they move into more advanced groups. The most advanced group this year includes only Johnnie Guy and Tyler Pence. They’ve led the team to fourth in the top 25 poll, its highest national ranking since Hillyard was a runner in 1991.

Pence says cross country coaches have to go beyond races and practice to help runners succeed.

“I will come in here and talk to Hillyard daily,” says Pence. “He teaches us a lot. He’s a great guy and he’s there for us. Obviously, he knows a lot about running and he just points us in the right direction.”

Pence, who Hillyard expects to finish in the top two at the NCAA Midwest Regional, says he’s not really into the details of cross country. He leaves that up to Hillyard.

“I would never know,” he says. “I just go off what he tells me to do.”

USI has consistently had some of the top men’s runners in the GLVC, though that’s not necessarily due to talent. When Hillyard recruits, he doesn’t go after the fastest runners; he seeks out the hard workers and those willing to compete.

“It is not so much about numbers on paper,” says Hillyard. “If you look the top 12 to 14 guys on our roster, very few of them were at the All-State level in high school. A lot of them weren’t even recruited. But what they have in common is a tremendous work ethic. And you’d think being competitive would be a given, but it isn’t. There are kids who will do the work but don’t have a competitive bone in their bodies.”

The women’s team hasn’t had as much national success as the men. Still, the USI women have won five of the last six GLVC titles, including the last three in a row. They also have been ranked as high as 12th in the nation this year.

USI will host the NCAA Men’s Midwest Regional on Nov. 18 at Angel Mounds. Hillyard and his runners agree they have a chance to win the title. The Screaming Eagles are ranked second in the Midwest Region behind Grand Valley State. 

For more information about Mike Hillyard and the USI cross country teams, visit gousieagles.com.

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