Chris Miltenberg's Vision Is Paying Off For UNC's Future

* Parker Wolfe during the 2022 XC Season for North Carolina

Photo Credit: UNC Athletics 

By Tim Casey - MileSplit Recruiting Reporter

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Since arriving at the University of North Carolina in the summer of 2019 as the director of track and field and cross country, Chris Miltenberg has preached the importance of building what he refers to as a corps and branch model.

It's the same approach he used at Stanford, where he worked for seven years.

The model consists of having a corps of elite distance runners and surrounding them with talented sprinters, jumpers and throwers, i.e. the branches. That way, Miltenberg theorized, UNC can have both NCAA championship-caliber cross country teams and can also compete for conference titles and national placements in track.

So far, Miltenberg has shown progress toward that goal, leading the Tar Heels women and men to fifth and 10th-place finishes, respectively, at the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Nov. 19.

That was the first time both teams finished in the top 10 of the NCAA meet in the same year. The women had their best NCAA placement in history, while the men had their second-best placement, trailing only the 1985 team that finished fifth.

The future looks bright, too, as four of the top five men's cross country runners are sophomore-eligible and the top seven women's cross country runners are freshmen or sophomores.

The Tar Heels have also signed a top recruiting class once again. So far, nine boys and seven girls in the Class of 2023 have signed national letters of intent. Miltenberg expects to sign other recruits in the coming months as well, he says.

UNC has signed a few top distance runners, including Ciara O'Shea from Madison Central (KY), a five-time state cross country champion in Kentucky and MileSplit's 49th-ranked girls recruit, and Noah Breker from Robbinsdale Armstrong (MN), MileSplit's 24th-ranked cross country runner this fall. Both will compete at the Champs Sports National Championships on Saturday.

The Tar Heels have also signed several sprinters, jumpers and throwers. Such among them are teammates Killian Fahy and Reece Morgan from Cuthbertson (NC); javelin thrower Spencer Young from Marlborough School (CA); and Evie Culbreath from Baylor School (TN), who finished second in the heptathlon at NSAF Outdoor Nationals in June.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletics

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"I would say this is by far our most complete recruiting class yet," Miltenberg said.

While Miltenberg is UNC's director of track and cross country and ultimately is responsible for the program, he gives credit to his assistants for identifying and signing ideal prospects. 

Miltenberg and assistants Dylan Sorensen and Ian Moini specialize in the distance runners, assistant Jody Stewart specializes in the sprints/hurdles, assistant Amin Nikfar specializes in the throwers and associate head coach Michael Eskind specializes in the jumpers, pole vaulters and multis athletes. Eskind also serves as the recruiting coordinator.

"I always say to our staff the three most important things are always recruiting, recruiting and recruiting, but not the way most people think about it," Miltenberg said. "Not meaning you've got to get talent. Absolutely that's a crucial part of it, but it is getting the right people."

He added: "And if you are recruiting and talking about recruiting and thinking about recruiting 365 days a year, then you can be really patient and methodical and wait for the right people. If you're scattered, all of a sudden you get desperate and you start making rush decisions. We're always making sure we're really getting to know the people we're bringing in."

Miltenberg had success on the recruiting front soon after coming to UNC, particularly on the women's side where the Tar Heels signed distance runners Taryn Parks, Sarah Trainor, Sasha Neglia, who were 12th, 15th and 34th, respectively, in the MileSplit girls recruiting rankings for the Class of 2020.

"We even surprised ourselves with how quickly it took shape (on the women's side in recruiting)," Miltenberg said. "We were like, 'Man, this is going to work.'"

After Covid-19 hit in March 2020, Miltenberg didn't know how that would impact his ability to recruit, considering he had just joined UNC less than a year earlier and couldn't travel to visit recruits or have them see the campus. But in retrospect, he said the coaching staff had more time to connect with prospective athletes because they were at home and didn't have to worry about planning for meets.

UNC ended up signing a stellar class again for the Class of 2021, even though many of those runners did not compete much during the outdoor track season in 2020 due to Covid.

* Noah Breker in the 1,600m during the Hamline Elite Meet

"We want to be at the podium at the NCAA Championships. I wouldn't have come to Carolina if I wasn't absolutely certain we had the things we need to get there. Are we there yet today? No, we're not there yet. But are we starting to get the right people on the bus, are they developing in the right direction? Absolutely."

    On the boys side, the Tar Heels signed Parker Wolfe, the 2020 RunningLane National Cross Country champion, and Ethan Strand, who finished 14th at that meet. And on the girls side, they signed Brynn Brown, MileSplit's No. 2 girls recruit in her class; Sydney Masciarelli, the No. 8-ranked national recruit; and Makayla Paige, the No. 16-ranked recruit.

    "I swear I learned more about who I wanted in that class by how they responded to the Covid setback than had they even run junior year track," Miltenberg said. "There were so many people in that class we would call them and they'd be like, 'Yeah, I'm kind of training but there might not be a state meet.' We were like, 'Nope. Hang up and don't call them back.'"

    He added: "And then I'd call Parker Wolfe, I'd call Ethan Strand, I'd call Brynn Brown and they're like, 'We don't know when the state meet's going to happen, but we're training, we're getting better.' I was like, 'Yup, those are our people.' You learned about their character and drive during Covid."

    Most of the recruits UNC has signed since Miltenberg arrived have ended up showing marked improvement in college, and a few have shined on the national stage. Wolfe, for instance, finished ninth at the NCAA cross country meet this year, while sophomore Kelsey Harrington finished 17th at the women's NCAA meet that same day.

    Six days ago, Wolfe also broke the U.S. U20 5K record indoors when he ran 13:19.73 in his opener at Boston University. 

    The track teams have gotten better, as well. Before Miltenberg arrived, the Tar Heels' women finished 10th at the 2019 ACC indoor and outdoor track meets, while the men finished 12th and seventh. This past year, the women finished sixth and ninth, respectively, at the ACC indoor and outdoor meets, while the men placed fourth at both meets.

    "Are we going to have the huge (track) rosters that the Florida States and Virginia Techs carry?," Miltenberg said. "No. Honestly, from an admissions perspective, we can't do that, so we've got to get the right people and it's got to be small, tight groups which I think ultimately is going to be over the next 10 years suited for really high caliber NCAA championship success."

    He added: "We want to be at the podium at the NCAA Championships. I wouldn't have come to Carolina if I wasn't absolutely certain we had the things we need to get there. Are we there yet today? No, we're not there yet. But are we starting to get the right people on the bus, are they developing in the right direction? Absolutely."