Between conference realignment, re-brandings and new facilities, Sean Cleary has seen a lot of change at West Virginia since taking over the helm of its cross country and track and field teams in 2007.
Moving from the Big East to the Big 12, a lot of those outside changes have affected the actual competitions in which his teams partake. For example, while cross country was “premiere” sport of the two in the Big East, track and field tends to get the attention in the Big 12.
“I would say in the Big 12 [track and field] is one of the priority sports, and I think with that, you just have a few more resources,” Cleary said. “I mean this track that we just built a year ago, or helped build a year ago, will go a long, long way to bring that parity up.”
However, those Big East roots have provided a groundwork that helped build what was nearly a Big 12 championship for Cleary’s cross country runners. While at the team’s preseason camp, he started to get the feeling that this team was going to do something special.
“For the first time in a long time in this program — in a number of years, anyway — I truly believed we had a shot at winning the Big 12 cross country meet,” he said.
At that point, he sat his team down — which was made up of a mix of experienced runners and contributing walk-ons — and set the tone for the season.
By the end, they were just seconds away from a win — so close, that they were even announced as winners on the loud speaker.
“All in all, we lost it in the last second, but I think it was a tremendous step forward for our program,” he said. “These kids…they expect to be at nationals, they believe this is a program that should be at nationals, and my God, they got close. I walked away from that meet and I felt it was probably one of the very, very best seasons the program has ever had.”
Then started the track season. Being the sport that receives more focus in the Big 12, WVU had a lot of catching up to do in a lot of areas. The Mountaineers had some better ground to run on, though, with their new track facility at Mylan Park which opened in 2019.
“It was a major boost in morale for the group,” Cleary said. “To be able to get out there and have a track and have various event areas training at the exact same time is the first time we’ve had in years. You know, unfortunately that outdoor track [by the WVU Coliseum] really wasn’t safe anymore for the pole vault and a few other events.”
Unfortunately, like every other sport across the country, Cleary’s Mountaineers were forced to go their separate ways. He’s done his best to maintain contact with his runners, which is easier for some than others. Many hail from the U.S., such as Sarah Wills of Morgantown, a graduate of University High School.
Since Cleary has cast a wide recruiting net, though, he has to cast an equally big communication net. With runners like Linda Jebet hailing from Kenya or the Australian duo of Katherine Dowie and Bree Warren, keeping in touch isn’t easy — but he says he keeps it up daily.
Cleary is confident, however, that his team is doing their best to stay in shape. He even hypothesizes that if they were allowed to return in August, his squad would be ready to go by September — and much of that has to do with the fact that running is quite a solitary activity to begin with.
“They’re used to the seclusion and the isolation, and quite honestly, being alone,” he explained. “I think that the toughest event areas for us might be the specific and technical track events — the jumps and the pole vault….For them, they’ve found running. They’re out running, and I live over by the Rail Trail and that thing has exploded over the last few weeks.”
Cleary and his staff are telling their athletes to stay safe when they go, and of course, practice social distancing.
“Obviously, you know, we’re preaching tiny, tiny little groups, go solo, go with your one friend, run single file,” he said. “Do the things we’re supposed to be doing in accordance to this distancing, but I think it does make it a little bit easier.”