By Pierre Lechat, November 20 2019 —
On Nov. 9, the cross country U Sports National Championships took place in Kingston, Ontario. The Dinos men’s team arrived as the defending champions. The team seemed even stronger than last year, as its best members hadn’t graduated yet and was reinforced with Matthew Travaglini’s recruitment. Additionally, they had just finished crushing their opponents at the Canada West Championships on Oct. 26 in Calgary with a massive collective win. Everything was set to see the national crown come back to Calgary. It was an obsession for the athletes. They trained for it for months, and even the Canada West Championships at home were seen mostly as a dress rehearsal for U Sports. On a windy and muddy 10-kilometre race at the Fort Henry Hill in Kingston, they did what they set out to do. Led by a brilliant Russell Pennock, third in the race, they claimed a back-to-back championship by a huge margin.
The Dinos had no serious threats because of the impressive talent on their team. Paralympic triathlete Stefan Daniel came 12th overall but he had aced the Canada West Championships.
“Unfortunately it just wasn’t my day,” explained Daniel. A less than perfect showing from Daniel didn’t penalize the team, which could afford a bad day from its conference champion — proof the Dinos were almost unbeatable.
What makes this sport so beautiful is that nothing is predetermined.
“That’s just the reality of running. It’s so unpredictable and you don’t know how people are going to feel on the day, what their fitness level is, and what their race plan is,” explained Daniel. Kieran Lumb from the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds was beaten by both Pennock and Daniel at the Canada West Championships but won the U Sports championships easily.
“The guy who came second last year, Jean-Simon Desgagnes, came 18th this year so that shows how hectic cross-country can be,” added Pennock.
However, the Dinos showed that there was no uncertainty in their expected victory through an exciting race. Pennock dreamed about it for a long time and quickly set the track on fire.
“The pace was strong right from the start, with Pennock taking charge,” explained teammate Travaglini.
“With a pace that quick, I was expecting the lead group to shrink down to maybe five or 10 men early on in the race, but because of the caliber of athlete who was running, there was still a very big group even with two kilometres to go,” said Travaglini. At the two-kilometre point a runner from the Windsor Lancers made a move and broke apart from the pack but UBC’s Lumb was untouchable.
“When Kieran Lumb made his move for the win I tried to go with him, but he was just too strong and I continued to hold my position and fight for a medal,” said Pennock. It was a successful fight for him, as he finished third for the second consecutive year, a medal he is proud of because he was defeated by runners stronger than him.
“I am really happy to come away with the bronze again. As for Kieran, I am not too frustrated losing to him. Obviously everyone wants to win, but losing to someone of his caliber is definitely something I can live with,” Pennock said.
Three seconds behind Pennock came Travaglini in fourth position. Even seeing the results of the Canada West Championships, where he also finished fourth, it was hard to predict such a strong performance. But Travaglini is a big-time player and U sports was his priority.
“I tried to do everything I could to best prepare myself for U Sports, which played out by not over-reaching at CanWest,” Travaglini said.
It was a successful strategy, even if he missed the individual podium.
“I would be lying if I said an individual medal was not a goal, but as far as having to settle for the second-best option, a team title is not that bad of an alternative,” he said.
Pennock underlined the importance of Travaglini in the team title.
“He was obviously pivotal for our team this year,” he said.
Behind them, Stefan Daniel fought hard and finished twelfth despite his bad day.
“I knew I wasn’t going to finish where I wanted to, so I just tried to fight through it and beat as many people as possible for the team score,” Daniel said. “I had no idea where I had finished when I crossed the line and was completely dazed and out of it.” For the team classification, each rank is important. Daniel didn’t feel good but he never gave up on his team.
“Stefan is the kind of athlete who leaves nothing in the tank every time he races especially at a big one like U Sports so we’re all proud of his grit and determination,” said Pennock.
Eric Lutz, in twentieth place, and Maximus Thiessen, in twenty-sixth place, completed the Dinos team effort. With five of its runners among the thirty best, the Dinos won the title easily. Guelph and McMaster were 20 points behind — yet again there was a deep gap at this level. Coach Doug Lamont, named once again coach of the year, could be proud of his runners, who trained hard to win. This generation has already entered the Dinos history books. At Kingston, they probably reached their top — winning a third time in a row next year looks like a huge challenge. Pennock and Travaglini are in their last year and will be hard to replace.
“Next year we’ll have a young team, so I’ll need to try and be better if we want to have more success as a team,” said Daniel, the future leader. Pennock dubbed the 19-year-old Maximus Thiessen as his successor.
“Maximus, in only his second year, raced with composure and didn’t let the pressure of a national title get to him. He was a real difference-maker for our team at U Sports and I am expecting some big races out of him later in his varsity career” he says.
But this is not the time to dwell on the future. The Dinos are national champions and it is an exceptional accomplishment.