The NCAA District II qualifying meet today at Lehigh University will be both a test and a gauge for the area's two top cross country teams.
For Georgetown and its leading runner, Olympian John Gregorek, the meet will be a way to silence critics who have suggested the Hoyas have begun to slide after years as one of the top teams in the East. George Mason University's young squad, which upset Georgetown in a meet earlier this year, could gain national recognition with a good showing. The top five squads in the 48-team event will qualify for the national meet to be held Nov. 24 in Wichita, Kan.
"We're not doing as well as we have in previous years," acknowledged Joe Lang, who consistently has turned out good teams since becoming coach at Georgetown in 1974. "But one good race could dispell a lot of what people have been saying.
"September was atrocious. John was tired after competing in the Olympic trials and in Europe all summer. Some other people have been injured or sick or tired, or just have not run well.
"I have not been satisfied with some of the races this year. But we're hoping that ground we gave in September and October, we will get back in November."
George Mason Coach John Cook, the reason for a major turnaround at the Fairfax school in just three years, already has seen his team stun Georgetown, then finish a surprising fourth in the IC4A meet three weeks ago (Georgetown was 10th). Chuck Wimberly, a junior from Edison High School, and sophomores Dave Romaine and Jon Babcock have been consistent winners for the Patriots.
"My goal has been to compete eventually with the big people," said Cook. I wanted to win the state championship, and we tied with Virginia Tech for first this year. I also wanted to consistently get national qualifiers.
"I don't know if we'll get to the nationals this year, because Penn State, Villanova and Bucknell look awful tough, and you can't leave out Georgetown. But it's been a good year."
Three years ago, Cook inherited a cross country program that consisted of, as he put it, "two guys and a bathroom."
"I guess it really was nonexistent," Cook said. "They weren't competing in NCAA Division I, which we are now, but in the NAIA, which wasn't much competition. There was nothing."
Cooke had gained something of a hustler's reputation during his nine years at Edison High School, where his cross country teams four times were runners-up in the state tournament and three of his track teams won state championships. Brash and outspoken, he made at least a few enemies, courtesy of a sharp tongue.
"The one thing about coaching a 'minor' sport is that so much is dependent on the coach," he said without the least bit of conceit. "You can have a successful program, but if the coach goes, so does the program. That's because you've got to hustle so much more than in other sports. You can't just put a sign out saying, 'Cross country tryouts in the gym at 4.'
"At the same time, however, you can't get anywhere without support from the top. The administration (at George Mason) has been great. I told them I would have to get money. I've got some. The administration and Bob Epskamp, the athletic director, have really backed me up so far."
In his first year, Cook convinced Wimberley, a high school all-America runner, to move over from Edison with him. The following year, Romaine came up from Newport News, Babcock from Langley High School. Although the team is made up mostly of runners from the Northern Virginia area, Cook now is recruiting in areas such as Maryland and New Jersey.
"The first year actually was kind of fun," Cook said. "NAIA is so much different. It's more low key.But since we've gone Division I, it's a whole different world. All the coaches are high-class, high-powered people. They don't leave anything to chance. It's pretty damn serious."
Like his teammates, Gregorek is looking in today's meet as a vindication of sorts. After making the Olympic team as a steeplechaser, a relatively new event for him, the tall junior toured Europe to gain international running experience. He came back to Georgetown in September tired, disoriented and caught up in the afterglow of being an Olympian.
"I'm still feeling it a bit," he acknowledged. "I was invited to go to China in September, but I just couldn't. I still feel a little bit tired, mentally and physically."
Lang has allowed his star runner to work at his own pace in order to re-establish a racing groove. "I needed it," Gregorek confessed.
Said Lang: "There was no need to have John come right back and kill himself. He didn't need the pressure.He went over to Europe for the experience, not to win races. When he came back, I wanted him to take his time. John is such a fierce competitor, sometimes he's his own worst enemy. But it's a pleasant problem for a coach."
Gregorek termed his third-place finish in the George Mason meet on Sept. 27, in which he finished behind Romaine and Babcock, a rude awakening.
"I think if I had had any thoughts of just going out and winning by showing up, they were dispelled by that meet," he said. "I'm getting back into shape. I don't know if I can do as well as I did in the NCAAs last year (27th), but I feel good. I feel ready."
And the competitive spirit is still there.
"I did pretty good at the IC4As," he said. "I finished fourth. But a freshman beat me for third. Can you believe that? A freshman.