Freshmen Devon Sullivan and Sean Popik have successfully represented the UT men's cross country team so far this 2018 season. Running alongside the travel team, Sullivan and Popik have helped lead the men to top positions and titles.
Massachusetts native and finance major, Devon Sullivan, has placed as the third, fifth, and sixth runner on the UT team in the last four races.
"The previous race in Chicago was my definitely my best race so far this season," said Sullivan. "I paced well and ran smart, which led me to the third place position on our team."
Popik is from Jacksonville and is a international business major. He has placed as the fifth, sixth, and seventh runner on the men's cross country team so far this season. He said his best race this season was at the Chile Pepper Festival in Arkansas, where he finished as the fifth runner on the team and ran his best 8k time so far in 27:04.
"In preseason, the two freshman were both fighting for that eighth or ninth place spot on the team when they first started," said the men's cross country head coach, Dror Vaknin. "I figured they may be able to come through on our top seven, it would just depended on the race. I knew the opportunities would be there for them and both of them have put their foot down to make the opportunity happen. I don't think it just happened by mistake."
The two freshman have stuck together throughout this season. When they train and race, they run with each other as much as possible.
"We try to link up during our workout and definitely in races," said Popik. "We try to pace together to help each other get better, but at the end of the day it comes down to the final stretch between us."
According to the two freshman and Vaknin, the rest of the varsity men have taken the two under their wing. They said they have learn from their older teammates and they have only pushed them to be better in workouts and races.
"I think there is definitely a pressure being on the top seven, but the older boys take running seriously so it's hard not to be a committed athlete around them," said Sullivan. "You can feel a competitive nature around them, but everyone is just trying to be the best athlete they can and help everyone get better."
Although the team is helping the freshman in their first collegiate cross country season, cross country is still considered an individual sport and each athlete is expected to perform to their own caliber during a race.
"I think they're threatening the older boys on the team," Vaknin said. "This last race in Chicago, we had a subpar performance by some of the older men and Sean and Devon were there to be the third and fifth guy. So, this pushes the other boys to see them come up when they fall."
So far, Sullivan has run 27:03, 27:29, and 26:42 8k times this season. And Popik has put down times including: 27:07, 27:04, 27:39. Both Sullivan and Popik said they are hoping to cut off some time and run times in the 26:30 range in the remaining meets this fall.
"As I watch them develop, I see a lot of potential," said Vaknin. "They've earned the position they have and they work very hard to maintain it."
Both men share similar goals, they said they'd like to see the team place in the top three teams at the NCAA Regionals in order to make NCAA Nationals, as well as run together as a team in races to help push each other even more.
"It's always fun to see who pushes forward and comes up on the team every year," Vaknin said. "They've handled the pressure very well and I can see they want to be more. I would expect a lot of great things from these two."
Up next, the men's cross country team will run in postseason races, beginning with the 2018 Sunshine State Conference Championship on Saturday, November 3, before shifting its sights to the NCAA South Regional.
Written by Sydney Rhodes