This fall, both of EMU’s cross country teams exceeded preseason predictions. With such a strong carryover from those teams to the upcoming indoor track & field squads, what does second-year Coach Jason Lewkowicz expect?
“There is a new expectation of excellence,” he said, “and while we are still growing and have lots of room to improve, the mindset is one that is focused on being competitive and keeping the momentum going. Since so many of the cross country runners are also running track, it will be great to get the entire crew together and continue to pursue our goals.”
The track campaign starts with the indoor season opener this Saturday at the Liberty Kickoff in Lynchburg. It gets going in earnest after the upcoming Christmas break.
Lewkowicz is excited to see his team continue to grow in number and talent. The combined rosters totaled a mere 13 student-athletes the year before he took over the program. This year there are 40 men and women on the teams.
“Our team size has more or less doubled from last year which is a plus,” said Lewkowicz. “We have added a number of quality athletes that will help us be more competitive in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) this year. There is a lot of energy with this group and the buzz that was created during the cross country season has carried over to our track team. We still lack depth is several critical areas but we will have a presence in most events which is exciting.”
Aside from all of the new faces on the roster this year, a big addition is the return of jumper Michael Allen (Fork Union, VA/Louisa County). In three previous seasons, he won multiple ODAC crowns as well as trips to the national meet. Allen is back for his senior campaign after missing last spring while studying off campus through EMU’s cross cultural program.
“It is great to have someone like Michael on our team for a number of reasons,” explained Lewkowicz. “He brings natural leadership and has competed at a high level, so he knows what it takes. He is admittedly rusty after taking a year off but he is working hard with Coach (Britton) Olinger and is beginning to regain his form. The talent is there and the potential is immense, although everyone will have to be patient as he works his way back into top shape.”
As happened this fall with the cross country teams, an influx of new talent should challenge some school records and buoy the process of rebuilding the Eastern Mennonite track & field program.
“On the women’s side, we will be very strong in the middle distance events,” Lewkowicz said. “We have four freshmen women who have run a faster 800m time in high school than our current school record, so that is exciting.”
The coach pointed to his top cross country runner, Hannah Chappell-Dick (Bluffton, OH/Bluffton), to lead that group, saying that she has potential to become an NCAA qualifier during her time at EMU. Lewkowicz also singled out the leadership and athleticism of senior Sophia Holmes (Berryville, VA/Clarke County), who is switching from middle distance to sprints and jumps this year. He also expects to see a few ODAC scorers from a strong crew of throwers.
“On the men’s side, it’s exciting to think about their potential to really make a jump in the ODAC rankings,” said Lewkowicz.
The Royals scored in the single digits in last year’s ODAC Championships.
Lewkowicz said that local product Richard Robinson (Broadway, VA/Broadway) could be one of the top freshmen hurdlers in the nation, with both he and Allen challenging for ODAC golds in their respective events. Dan Nafziger (Harrisonburg, VA/Harrisonburg) and Carlos Orellana (Grottoes, VA/Spotswood), the anchors of the cross country team, will also strengthen the distance group on the track team.
Other women Lewkowicz mentioned as likely to make some noise include: Chafin Brumfield (Harrisonburg, VA/Spotswood) in the 400m and 800m, thrower Kiala Pinkston-Simmons (Waynesboro, VA/Waynesboro), middle distance runner Jolee Paden (St. Joseph, IL/St. Joseph-Odgen) and Lanae Kreider (Harrisonburg, VA/Broadway) in the steeplechase. For the men, Lewkowicz also highlighted transfer Philip Watson (Philadelphia, PA/La Salle) and Jonathan Bush (Pottstown, PA/Owen J. Roberts), both in the 200m and 400m.
As they prepare for their first meet, team unity is proving to be a strength.
“It has been a short turnaround from the cross country season so we are working to bring the team together and get focused on our common goals of honoring God with our team while pursuing excellence in our endeavors,” Lewkowicz explained. “I am blessed with a dedicated and talented coaching staff and we are all on the same page in what it takes to prepare our athletes to compete at a high level. Our hope is that these fundamentals honed and the fitness gained over the fall will be maintained over the Christmas break so we can come out in January and continue to progress.”
While always brimming with optimism, Lewkowicz knows neither his men nor women have the depth to grab a team title at an ODAC meet this year. But he thinks a top four or five finish would be an encouraging sign of progress, both to his athletes and to the general public.
“We have a number of athletes with the potential to be All-ODAC or ODAC champions, and there are a few who have ambitions of qualifying for the NCAA Championships,” the coach said. “There are a number of school records that we expect to fall this year and we will be keeping track of them on our bulletin board outside of the athletics office. We’re hoping for weekly updates to it!”
He also expects those records to be celebrated by the entire team, as well as for them to have higher goals that might not be seen on paper.
“While (breaking records) are individual goals, so to speak, they are accomplishments that would be appreciated and shared by the team as a whole,” said Lewkowicz. ”Our main non-quantitative goals are to be a team that holds itself to a high standard morally, and ethically, to maintain humility and integrity, and to seek to honor our great God in all that we do, win or lose.”