Sutton making mark for Westminster

Aaron Sutton has a passion for strumming chords on his guitar.

Having an ear for music, it wasn’t difficult for the 2010 Howland High School graduate and current Westminster College runner to listen to what his college coach, Tim McNeil, was saying.

“A lot of my high school career, I tried to be a front runner,” Sutton said. “Probably a lot of that had to do with Mike Garcia being my coach my first couple of years and being confident. Toward the end of high school, especially coach McNeil, was a big proponent of checking your fuel economy. Like saving some and gradually getting faster coming from behind. Instead of blowing all your valves in the first two miles. I apply that to all my races here. Pace smart. Start smart. Finish strong. The biggest thing is it’s helped me move up to the next level. College races are much more tactical. You have to go out smart, keep your head in the game with your strategy.”

Sutton, who is a dual music and business major, was part of the pack that led the Titans with a season-opening victory in the Fisher Invitational, hosted by Westminster in New Wilmington, Pa. The Titans scored 51 points and Sutton took ninth.

Freshman Matt Slage led Westminster with a seventh-place finish (30 minutes, 6.9 seconds). Sutton was ninth (30:18.0) and freshman Matt Cramer took 10th (30:20.8). The race is an 8K event, like most collegiate cross country runs.

He finished 17th (28:51.8), helping the Titans take third Saturday at the Waynesburg (Pa.) Invitational.

“That was a huge surprise to me. If you asked me if that was possible, I would not have been sure,” Sutton said of the opening meet.

He’d like for his team to win the Presidents Athletic Conference title.

“I’d really like to see what the team could do in cross country,” Sutton said. “It’s really only been me and one other guy. We’ve never had a team or pack to see what we can do. That’s the biggest thing I’m looking forward to.”

Sutton’s whole summer wasn’t preparing for the upcoming season. It was preparing for his next step after the May 2014 graduation – grad school. Duquesne and Youngstown State are strong possibilities for his music program.

McNeil, a former Westminster football and track and field standout, said with Sutton having to give lessons, work and concentrate on his majors, along with finding time to practice is a juggling act in itself.

“I give all of our kids credit for getting their running in,” said McNeil, a 1992 John F. Kennedy graduate and former JFK cross country and track and field coach. “I certainly wish they were running more, but that’s the benefit of coming to a Division III school. Your sport in not necessarily No. 1. We sell that, that you can do a lot of different things in Division III – school, extra curricular, athletics. Aaron is one of the most balanced kids I have had the privilege of coaching, just because he is so busy.”

That’s why Sutton’s focus is building a Westminster program. his personal best 5-mile time was last year of 25:20.2.

“You like to talk about nationals,” said McNeil, who is in his seventh year. “People don’t realize how good you have to be to get to nationals in Division III. For Aaron, we’ve talked about it. Our No. 1 goal, to make our team relevant again, we’re certainly on our way to do that.”

Then again, it was McNeil who found Sutton to be a viable runner in college when others passed on the talented senior.

“He fell through a lot of people’s radar screens,” McNeil said. “He had an OK sophomore year, but they forgot about him after his junior and senior years. He had a couple of school choices. If they’re really good their senior year, they think, ‘Ah, I’m going big time.’ We lucked out a little bit that Aaron struggled a little bit, running wise, his senior year of high school.

“He went through the growing pains his freshman year and then, his sophomore year, he caught fire. He’s been really kind of one of the cornerstones of building our track and field program. Cross country, we haven’t been so good, but we’re turning the corner there. He’s helped us do that in cross country as well.”