YSU cross country team runs into regional ranking

YOUNGSTOWN – The Youngstown State men’s cross country team has made progress over the years.

It’s been a steady climb and this week the Penguins debuted at No. 8 in the Great Lakes Region poll, presented by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

“This year for us to drop down to eight is huge for us,” said YSU junior Alan Burns, a Boardman High School graduate. “We were ecstatic.”

That made YSU the top-ranked team in Ohio – ahead of No. 10 Ohio State, No. 13 Bowling Green, No. 14 Dayton and No. 15 Cincinnati.

The Penguins also are ahead of Notre Dame (No. 9), Butler (No. 11) and Indiana State (No. 13).

“It’s basically what we’ve been aiming for year after year,” coach Brian Gorby said. “As excited as we are to be No. 1 in Ohio, we basically bring our top five back next year.”

Gorby said his team has five runners able to go under 9 minutes in the 2-mile race, which equates to less than 25 minutes in a normal 8K cross country run. YSU’s team goes six-deep, but is hoping to bring the team’s seven, eight and nine runners along.

“That gives you the opportunity to be in the top 10 in the region,” Gorby said.

Junior Ryan Sullivan, a Howland High School graduate, is the team’s top runner and team’s top finisher – winning the University of Buffalo Stampede and taking eighth at Notre Dame.

His progress has mirrored the Penguins’ rise as they eventually rose to the top of Ohio’s ranks.

Sullivan remembers that he came from humble beginnings as a middle school runner in Howland to placing in the top 15 as a senior for the Tigers’ program.

Then, Sullivan learned from past YSU runners like Austin McLean and Eric Rupe, who transferred here after spending a short amount of time at the University of the Cumberlands (Kentucky).

Sullivan said he’s also benefited from Gorby’s distance running knowledge.

“I really think it is a great program,” said Sullivan, who ran a personal best 24:36.5 in the 8K at Buffalo – four seconds off the school mark set by Matt Folk. Folk was a two-time Olympic Marathon qualifier.

Rupe, a Maplewood High School graduate, is now an assistant coach with the Penguins and still trains with the team.

Rupe was a catalyst of this eventual surge that has YSU ranked No. 8.

“When he came in, I thought that was the key to the program,” Gorby said. “He could have gone to Ohio State, Kent or Akron, but he came back to Youngstown State. That was a key component, I felt, in starting to build the program back up.”

YSU freshman Tristan Dahmen, who also is a Maplewood graduate, led the Rockets to back-to-back Division III state titles the past two seasons – winning individual titles both seasons.

Dahmen said he knew the Penguins had some potential to be ranked high.

“We were all working our tails off,” he said. “I think we work really well together, too.”

The Penguins race at the Oct. 15 NCAA pre-nationals in Terre Haute, Ind. The Horizon League Championships are Oct. 29, hosted by the University of Milwaukee.

“From a coaching perspective, this is a lot of fun,” Gorby said of the ranking. “At the end of the day, our focus is going to be Horizon League. Whatever happens after that is icing on the cake, for this year.”

The Penguins haven’t won a men’s country country league title since 1996.

“Just to be local and just being able to support your local community and doing it for your local school, it means a little bit more than if you were somewhere else at a school farther away,” Burns said. “It feels you’re doing it for the hometown crowd and making Youngstown proud.”