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TC3 cross-country team stays on course despite COVID-19

The Tompkins Cortland Community College cross-country team starts a race. The teams run individually instead of head-to-head at meets this season.
While soccer fields, volleyball courts and football gridirons are sitting empty all across Tompkins County, the Tompkins Cortland Community College cross-country course is getting plenty of use. Although meets look quite different this year when the gun goes off, the TC3 Panthers haven’t let COVID-19 slow them down.

Because cross-country is an outdoor, low-contact sport, the NJCAA decided that it would be safe to compete the sport in the fall with some major modifications. The biggest change is that teams are not allowed to race head to head. Peggy Dunham, head coach of TC3 cross-county, said that teams arrive at staggered times, usually an hour before their scheduled start, so that only one group is warming up at once. Each team runs the race individually, and finish times are compared across all competitors to determine overall placements between teams.

TC3 men’s cross-country is the only varsity athletic team currently competing in Tompkins County. TC3 has three other fall sports teams  — men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball — but those seasons were moved to the spring by the NJCAA because of concerns surrounding the pandemic. Cornell UniversityIthaca College, Wells College and Elmira College all suspended fall sports, and Section IV, the high school athletic section of which Tompkins County is a part, also voted to postpone fall sports to the spring.

“Since we’re the only team that’s doing something this year, I feel like we’re trying to improve our campus during this whole pandemic situation,” said Elliott Holland, a first-year runner at TC3. “We’re lucky to be doing this stuff, especially at this time.

Dunham said that the new format has altered the way she coaches her athletes to approach races this season.

“We emphasize the mental aspect of being out there and pushing yourself because that’s kind of what you have to do,” she said. “We do have several of our guys that run fairly close together, which helps. That’s our big advantage right now.”

The TC3 cross-country team wear masks as they do a team cheer before a race. The team’s safety measures all season have paid off, and none of the athletes on the team have tested positive for COVID-19 thus far. (Courtesy of Elliott Holland)

In addition to the unique meet structure, the athletes are required to wear masks at all times when they are not running, and they receive COVID-19 tests every other week. Though Dunham said COVID-19 has not had a drastic impact on how her team trains or practices, she said that racing against competitors they can’t see has been the biggest challenge for her athletes.

“There’s been a couple of times where, from the beginning of the season to now, they’re a little bit closer to one of their competitors, but they don’t know that until after the race,” Dunham said. “Then they think, ‘Oh man, if I had only sprinted a little harder at the finish,’ or whatever, whereas if it was head to head, they would have known that that guy was right there.”

Holland is currently leading TC3’s pack. He has been the first runner across the finish line for the Panthers in every race so far and has placed in the top ten overall at the last two meets. He had his best finish of the year at the Corning Invite on Oct. 10, where he came in fifth with a time of 34:27 over 8,000 meters. The invite included five other squads from junior colleges in surrounding counties, including Finger Lakes Community College and Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

First-year Elliott Holland and second-year Robert Brehm lead the pack of TC3 runners during a race. Brehm earned all-conference honors last season, and head coach Peggy Dunham said she hopes he will be able to repeat that title. (Courtesy of Elliott Holland)
“I wasn’t usually the first guy in high school for my team, but I’ve gotten a whole lot better,” Holland said.  “[The pandemic] is kind of a downer, but I didn’t expect to be on the team and compete and become the first runner, the fastest runner of the team, so that’s kind of improved it.”

The Panthers have their biggest meet of the season so far, the Mid-State Athletic Conference Championships at Finger Lakes Community College, on Oct. 24, followed by the regional championship on Oct. 31. Holland says his goal right now is simply to end his first season on a positive note.

“It’s becoming that point where you’re getting to the end and you want to finish off strong,” he said. “We’re doing our absolute best to finish strong for the team. The biggest goal for me is to finish off with a better time and get a lot faster.”

Featured image courtesy of Elliott Holland

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