Each year, thousands of high school students apply for college with the desire to leave home and be free from parental supervision. For some, the prospect of eating cereal and pancakes for dinner without being given that scolding look from their parents makes for a pretty effective motivator.
Among student athletes at Tennessee, specifically those that compete on the cross country team, there is often more on the line than just being able to rebel against the wishes of their parental figures.
Four of the team’s athletes expressed that they felt an overarching sense of pride and tradition because of running with the Tennessee squad — this same feeling and atmosphere was what led many to Tennessee in the first place.
Although the paths of all four runners did not play out the exact same way, their stories are all intertwined and share certain elements.
Long proud to wear the Tennessee logo:
For junior Zach Long, a native of Rutledge, Tenn., it was a lifelong dream to wear the Power T logo that has been worn by so many iconic athletes and is arguably one of the most recognizable symbols in all of college sports.
“I always wanted to run with the Power T on my chest,” Long said. “It’s always been a goal, a huge goal of mine to be an athlete at the University of Tennessee.”
Long grew up attending Tennessee football and baseball games with his family. Because he was so familiar with the university during his childhood, the other universities that began recruiting him in high school needed to have something very special to offer in order to compete with the school he knew he loved.
“I got recruited by a bunch of different schools … But when I got my first letter from Tennessee, it was my junior year. I got a letter from Tennessee, it was like a questionnaire to fill out and as soon as I saw the Power T on the envelope, it was pretty exciting. I called my mom and dad immediately,” Long said.
Long’s story is one composed of family, determination and a desire to compete for the Vols.
In his first season at Tennessee, Long was the first runner in program history to be named SEC Freshman of the Week twice.
Long began his junior season at the Georgia Bulldog SEC Preview and came in second place in the 8K, having been named USTFCCCA Outdoor Second Team All-American in the 5000-meter event earlier this year.
His goals for the future remain high, as national championships are on Long’s mind.
“That’s the ultimate goal as a track and field athlete, to make it out to Oregon,” Long said. “Now that I’ve made it out there, the next step is to be able to take a victory lap around that track.”
Robinson finds revitalization in cross country career:
Wesley Robinson, junior from Oak Ridge, Tenn., has had an off-and-on relationship with running his whole life. In middle school, he ran cross country and also played soccer.
Despite finding success in running, Robinson grew tired of the sport and eventually experienced a burn-out period. During high school, he played soccer exclusively, not running cross country for his first two years.
It wasn’t until Robinson’s junior year that he decided to start running cross country again. However, he didn’t expect to run in college, at least not for UT. With family ties to Clemson, it was one of Robinson’s first choices out of high school.
“Going into my senior year, I wasn’t planning on running in college,” Robinson said. “I was just planning on going to school, and I didn’t want to go to UT because everyone at my school went to UT and they hung out with each other.
“I wanted to do my own thing somewhere else.”
One of Robinson’s coaches spoke to him and said that he had potential to run at the collegiate level. Although he had applied to UT because “everybody applies to UT,” he wasn’t really thinking of attending until an invitation to visit the campus was extended to him from the athletic department.
“I came here on an official (visit), and that is when I was sold on Tennessee,” Robinson said. “I had an incredible official visit.”
Now, having spent two full seasons at Tennessee, one of his biggest goals moving forward is to make it all the way.
“My goal is to run at a national championship in cross country,” Robinson said.
Schumacher happy with close-to-home ties:
A new face to the Tennessee program this season hails from Seymour, Tenn. Niamh Schumacher, freshman runner who began her season at the Paul Short Run, says that being close to home was important and makes everything at Tennessee a little more special.
“I visited Texas A&M and Alabama,” Schumacher said. “I really wanted to go to a big school, and they were great, but it was just so much better being close to home.”
Niamh came away from high school with an impressive track record, where she was a two-time individual cross-country state champion as well as a cross-country All-American her senior year.
What brought Schumacher to Tennessee was the level of interest the program expressed in her. Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Layne Anderson called her during the summer, asking for a sit-down visit.
“He asked if he could come over and talk to me about UT. I was so excited to hear that, and once I talked to him, it just seemed like the best option,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher’s experience so far at Tennessee has been, according to her, more than what she expected. A national championship is her long-term goal, but with her career just beginning, the freshman looks to meet multiple smaller goals on the way.
Murray transitions from softball player to cross country standout:
A local talent who was full of Tennessee passion from a young age, sophomore Megan Murray has already made an impact with the cross country program.
Murray, who attended Knoxville West High School, didn’t think that she would be involved with the sport long-term.
Originally a softball player in high school who undertook running in a serious capacity during her junior year, Murray thought that she would play softball at the collegiate level before turning to cross country.
“I did look at schools outside of Tennessee when I was looking at colleges, but I mainly wanted to stay in the south … When I became a runner I started thinking, ‘Maybe Tennessee is the best place for me,’” Murray said.
The final decision came down to Tennessee and Kentucky. It wasn’t until April that Murray made the choice after creating a pro-con list to decide between the two schools.
One of the benefits for Tennessee in Murray’s mind was the director of track and field/cross country Beth-Alford Sullivan, who has a personal background in cross country.
“Knowing that Tennessee was my home for so long, I was happy coming here … A big pro for me coming to Tennessee is having a strong female figure in the coaching staff,” Murray said. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do in the future, but I may want to be a college coach at some point, so being able to see her and that perspective I thought would be a good learning experience for me.”
Building off of her aspirations to potentially become a coach, Murray actually hosted Schumacher when she came for her official visit, sharing her unique experiences of growing up in the area and of all the options and facilities that Tennessee offers student-athletes.
“I think that Tennessee is definitely a growing program … You get to be part of that team-building and growing altogether,” Murray said. “You have to help build the culture rather than just being put into it … A lot of the schools I looked at already had that sort of culture.
“It is fun to be part of something that’s growing, and we’re all kind of in it together.”
This past year, Murray earned a spot on the United States team for the World Cross-Country Championship. She explained that she may not have been given that opportunity if she had attended another school, as she would have had to redshirt an entire track season in order to run in that race.
“I don’t know if another coach would have had the resources or the ability to let me do that,” Murray explained.
Participating in the Olympic trials, becoming a national champion and attaining All-American status are among the goals Murray has set for herself.
All roads lead to Knoxville:
Long, Robinson, Schumacher and Murray share similar aspects in their personal stories, but each still holds its own unique experiences. Some of them did not initially consider Tennessee, while the others felt destined to attend the school from the beginning.
According to Alford-Sullivan, though, all four are bound by the choice that they made in attending Tennessee and the relationships developed while competing for the Vols.
“All of them have a great connection to the Tennessee Vol history and family, and it makes us that much stronger and deeper when family, friends, grandparents and everybody can be engaged in their four or five years they have in college,” Alford-Sullivan said.