Since Nike Team Nationals started in 2004, no school has had the success Fayetteville-Manlius (NY) has shown. Four seperate NTN meets, four seperate top three finishes (2 boys, 2 girls). This year, F-M's girls team is ranked U.S. #1 in the MileSplit National CC Rankings and looks to make a run at their third straight national championship. Why is this squad so successful? What's their magic? MileSplit national editor Scott Bush traveled out to New York to see for himself, and the results were surprising.
The Road to New York
It's a long ways from Chicago to New York. Thirteen hours and twenty-three minutes to be exact. As I rolled into my car at 5 a.m., preparing myself to make the trip, a vision shot into my head, one that would inspire me the entire trip, making the drive less painful then it could have been.
The vision was simple. It was of a group of runners, the best in the country, giving it their all in a workout. These runners weren't ordinary by any means. Not only were they fast, but they lived a life in a way few athletes choose too. They dedicated themselves mind, body and soul to a unifying purpose of doing the best they possibly could. It sounds so simple, but so few can actually execute it to perfection.
Being able to observe that is a reporters dream. Knowing the opportunity was out there to capture this spirit, the championship spirit, is enough to keep anyone awake. So as I arrived in New York, and drove up to Fayetteville-Manlius High School, my heart raced and I knew that I was about to observe something special.
For the past two years no school has been more dominant in girls cross country than Fayetteville-Manlius (F-M). In 2006 the squad won the national championship by fifty points, while last year they simply dominated, winning yet again by an 83-171 margin. Many have labeled the 2007 squad as the greatest team ever, but with eight of their top nine returning this year, that title could switch to the 2008 squad very easily.
The Stotan Way
But this story starts in the fall of 2004, when Nike announced that they were creating a new national championship, one that would invite twenty of the top teams in the country to Portland to compete in the only true national team championship in the country. Nike Team Nationals was born and teams from around the country started to change their focus to include NTN.
Since the first gun sounded at Portland Meadows, NTN has been deemed a success, and from 2004-2007, no team has been more successful then the boys and girls team from Fayetteville-Manlius High School. In '04 & '05 F-M placed second and third respectively on the boys side. These two teams set a precident for the entire squad, and received a lot of media attention for how they went about their running business.
The word Stotan was a term the team took under its wing. A combination of stoic and spartan, all rolled into one. This word was shaped in the 1950's, coming from Percy Cerutty and Herb Elliot. In its basic sense of meaning, Stotan is a way of life. A simple, clearn, hard working way of life.
"We had liked this concept for a long time, but in '04-'05 we had the team that we thought would grab onto this idea," Bill Aris explains. Bill, and his son John, are the coaches of the F-M team.
Since 2004 Stotan has become the F-M rallying cry of sorts. The Aris' use the philosophy to guide the team, boys and girls. "Not everyone buys into it, but most of the kids do," John says.
If anything makes the Fayetteville-Manlius squad unique it is this. It is something to group all the athletes around, it toughens them up, helps them understand that if they want to be truly great at something they need to shape their lives around it.
It's Not About the Numbers
With two national championships on the girl's side, and another two top three NTN finishes on the boy's, it would be easy to think that F-M has a squad of 50+ athletes on both sides. Powerhouse teams tend to get a lot of kids out. The York High School boys team in Elmhurst, Illinois gets out nearly 200 athletes a year. That is not the case at F-M.
"Lacrosse and soccer dominate the school culture," says John, "we just don't get the numbers some other teams do."
Bill goes into a story of an eighth grader, who moved to the area from Ethiopia, who decided to play soccer over competing in cross country and track and field. The kid ran 4:30 for 1500 meters...as a seventh grader...and his name is Haile (as in the same name as the greatest runner of all-time)!
To the Aris' it is not about the numbers. Rather it is about getting slightly above average athletes out to participate in something they love to do, aren't forced to do, and work hard. This year's team has somewhere between 20-25 girls and 20-25 boys.
The approach to each athlete is long-term. Success isn't created overnight and the Aris' understand this. Their focus is on strength, building a lot of it, and by their junior and senior seasons they are really ready to compete at the highest levels.
"The approach of our program is a focus on strength, plus appropriate speed, that prepares them to accomplish their best junior and senior year in high school, as well as give them a lasting foundation into college and post-collegiate running," Bill says.
That long view seems to work, and is a breath of fresh air in a society that expects instant results.
"It's all how much time you spend running, how many miles and minutes you put in," John confirms.
See Yourself As Athletes
Encourage the athletes to live a Stotan lifestyle, encourage long-term development and you see why F-M is so successful, however, their greatest team philosophy is that they don't treat their female runners like females, rather they treat them like athletes.
"It is important for our boys to see the girls as athletes, and it is even more important for our girls to see themselves as athletes," states Bill.
It's an important theme of the program. With such a small group to work with, both the boys and girls train together, and in the practice observed on this trip the girls ran stride for stride with many of their male counterparts.
This respect between the boys and girls seems clear, and when F-M's top runners, Courtney Chapman and Hannah Luber, came charging over the small hill in their final circuit of the day, both had the look of being two of the nation's best athletes in their eyes. You could see it, literally see it.
This philosophy all comes back to the Stotan approach. To be successful the athletes must steer away from the social stigmas so many of their peers live day in and day out. The coaches understand there are physiological differences and psychological differences between their male and female athletes. At the end of the day all of them are treated as athletes, not as male athletes and female athletes, but as top athletes.
Another Year, Another Step Forward
Every year a new vision is set. The past is forgotten, the season ahead the only focus. That is how Fayetteville-Manlius has always done it, and it's always seemed to work fairly well. The athletes don't rest knowing they've won two national titles in a row, rather they sprint forward, accepting new challenges. They know full well that if they don't challenge themselves every day that they won't live up to their potential, and at the end of the day some other team that is hungrier will come crashing through their pack and win the national title.
However, despite all the success in the past few years, things are constantly changing at F-M. Bill and John Aris know that if they want their athletes to continue to improve they better keep them focused and keep challenging them, mentally and physically. So the focus this year is a more long-term approach.
In 2007 the NTN committee was uncertain whether or not New York would have a regional qualifier, and in mid-season it was announced that they would. The F-M squad focused during their summer and early fall on competing well in all their regular season invitationals, knowing they had to score "qualifying points" if they hoped to receive an invitational to Nike Team Nationals.
As the rules changed mid-season, the goals still remained the same, but when the season was over the coaches sat down and drew a new game plan for 2008. The goals changed, from season long success, to a more patient approach, one that would hopefully make the athletes stronger, as well as keeping them healthier.
"We're not as concerned with being sharp right now," Bill says, "It's a slower approach. We want to build long-term strength and stay healthy."
As the season gets underway all eyes will be focused on F-M. You can never overlook two-time defending national champions, with eight of their top nine returning. The combination of a new training approach, their strong mental make-up and their Stotan way of life, is the challenge to every team in the nation. You won't beat this squad unless you can out train them, out think them, out live them.
"One year at a time, don't focus on the past, we've accomplished nothing yet," Bill says as he talks about what it will take to finish on top once again.
It's a unique life, the runner's life. Hard work, strong bonds and a dedication to the sport so few understand. But that's what makes this team so good, year in and year out. F-M set a new goal this fall, are trying a different approach and come December we'll see just how well it worked.