Bloomington, Ind. - The season ended in unexpected fashion for the Indiana mens cross country team as they finished 25th at the national championships after heading into the competition ranked 15th in the country.
Although the season did not end exactly the way the Hoosiers had planned, they enjoyed much success throughout the fall.
The season began with the Indiana Open on the Hoosiers home course where the team placed seven of the top 10 runners in the 7K race. IU then played host again at the Indiana Intercollegiates. Despite torrid weather conditions with tornadoes that ravaged the surrounding area and prevented some teams from making it to the Intercollegiates, the Hoosiers won their second Indiana Intercollegiates title in three years, taking five of the top seven spots.
Redshirt freshman John Jefferson set the pace in the first two meets as he finished second and first, respectively. For his 25:05 8K performance in the Intercollegiates, Jefferson was named the Big Tens Runner of the Week on Sept. 24, 2002.
During this time the team, led by Jefferson, his twin brother Sean Jefferson, Bart Phariss, Eric Redman and Tom Burns, earned a No. 20 Mondo NCAA Mens Cross Country poll ranking. It marked the best ranking since Oct. 31, 2000 when the team was 15th.
After nearly two weeks of rest, the Hoosiers faced the toughest competition of the year at the Indiana State Invitational. IU placed three runners among the top 10 against a field that included No. 6 Villanova, No. 12 Butler, No. 13 Colorado State, No. 26 Alabama and No. 32 Tennessee. The course was the same that the NCAA Championships would be held on in just less than two months. The Jefferson brothers led the Hoosiers, finishing fourth and fifth overall. John led IU with his 8K mark of 24:39 while Sean was slightly behind at 24:39.1, both career bests for the runners. Phariss was 10th with a time of 24:50.1, the third-best performance of his career.
The Hoosiers got another chance to feel out the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Ind. - the same course that the NCAA Championships were set to be run on - at the Pre-NCAA meet on Oct. 19. In a 35-team field, the Hoosiers battled to a fourth place finish as John and Sean Jefferson again led the Hoosiers. John finished 16th overall with a time of 24:20 while Sean finished 18th with a time of 24:22. Redman was third for IU in 57th place with a time of 25:01 while Phariss and Burns rounded out the lineup. Two other Hoosier runners who were not counted in team scoring, Nathan Purcell and Stephen Haas, finished with solid times, as they had all season.
The team took the stellar Pre-NCAA finish into the Big Ten Championships, hosted by Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. Ranked 18th heading into the event, IU was one of two Big Ten programs to record a top four finish in both the mens and womens race. The Hoosiers finished fourth for the second consecutive season on Nov. 3 at the Varsity Cross Country Course. Although head coach Robert Chapman and his team looked all season more towards the NCAA Championships rather than the Big Ten race, but his team finished solid in fourth place.
The Jefferson duo became the first Hoosier rookies since Olympian Bob Kennedy to earn all-league honors in their inaugural campaign. John finished the 8K race fourth with a career-best time of 24:07 while Sean was right behind him, as usual, taking sixth with a career-best time of 24:13.
The Big Ten office announced Nov. 6 that John Jefferson was the Big Tens Freshman of the Year. He became just the third Hoosier in school history to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, joining Kennedy (1988) and Marius Bakken (1997).
Then it was what the IU runners had been waiting for, the beginning of the NCAA portion of the schedule. The NCAA Regionals were held on the same course as the Big Ten Championships on Nov. 16 and the men finished in fourth place in the Great Lakes Region, led by John Jefferson in fourth place with a 10K time of 30:41.5 while Sean was 15th, coming in in 30:57.7. Phariss finished 23rd at 31:17.9 and Redman (38th, 31:37.4) and Burns (44th, 31:45.9) rounded out the scoring for IU.
The team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships with its fourth place finish at the Great Lakes Regional. It marked the second appearance in three years as the Hoosiers enjoyed a No. 15 ranking heading into the finals competition where they finished 25th in the nation. True to form, John led IIU with a time of 30:57.4 on the LaVern Gibson Championship Course, the same course where the Indiana State Invite and the Pre-NCAAs were held.
With the season over, the mens cross country team looks ahead to the USATF National Cross Country Championships to be held in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 9, 2003.
The Big Ten conference office announced on Dec. 10 that eight Hoosier student-athletes were named Academic All-Big Ten selections. Tom Burns, Joel Cotton, Rob DeWitte, Kurtis George, Nathan Gooden, Jonathan Little, Eric Redman and Jeffrey Zeha all earned the honor.
With a solid top 25 national finish and a young roster, Indiana mens cross country will be a factor on the national scene for the foreseeable future.