Culture of Belief Drives Virginia Milers Forward

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – It started with a close-quarters living situation through their first season in Charlottesville and was bolstered by a summer trip to Boulder, Colorado to train at altitude. The culture and togetherness established by Virginia’s middle-distance runners and head coach Vin Lananna has been a driving force for the success they have seen this season.

Lananna is no stranger to success in the NCAA. He has combined to win 11 NCAA team championships during his time as head coach at Stanford and Oregon while claiming 42 conference championships as well. Now in his third season at Virginia, Lananna’s recruiting efforts are starting to take shape.

At the ACC Indoor Championships, the Cavalier distance runners took the opportunity to show a glimpse of what their young group is capable of. Nathan Mountain, Yasin Sado, Ka’eo Kruse and Wes Porter, who were all recruited by Lananna, claimed four of the 10 spots in the final of the men’s mile.

The first-year pair of Mia Barnett and Margot Appleton have combined for what has been one of many exciting headlines out of the Hoos program this season.

Barnett capitalized on her very first opportunity of the indoor season where she set a Virginia freshman record in the mile run and went on to improve that time twice in the regular season.

The pair capped off an impressive indoor campaign with an excellent showing at the ACC Indoor Championships. Barnett finished fourth in the mile while Appleton knocked two seconds off her best time of 4: 37.46. The pairing also turned into yet another impressive display in the distance medley relay. Inexperience was no factor at all as Barnett led the Hoos while Appleton ran the anchor leg. Not only did the Cavaliers win the silver, but they also ran the fastest time in Virginia history and booked themselves a place at the NCAA Championships.

The success continued in Birmingham at the NCAA Championships. Barnett entered a field of 16 miles from across the country as the only true freshman. The Virginia freshman record holder ran an excellent race in the preliminaries that not only topped her own mark for the best freshman performance in UVA history but claimed the Virginia school record in the mile.

“I said you know what, I’m the second to last seed, so I’m going to have to give it all I’ve got.” said Barnett. “I really went for it in the mile prelims and made it to the mile final. I just knew that if I ran hard, good things would happen, ”she added.

Once again leading off and anchoring the distance medley relay, Barnett and Appleton helped their team to a seventh-place finish and earned first-team All-American honors in their first collegiate season.

“Nationals definitely didn’t go as well as we had hoped.” said Appleton of their DMR race. “But I felt like there was the reward of getting there and getting that experience. I feel like it’s just going to serve us really well later on. ” she said.

An impressive factor in the Cavaliers ’success that should not be overlooked is the fact that not all Lananna’s runners were considered top recruits out of high school.

Though he showed promise prior to joining the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, Wes Porter ended up being a diamond in the rough. The Kansas City native drew interest from multiple programs but was not considered a top-level prospect. “When I started to look at college, my top mile time as a junior was 4:10 which was good, but I wasn’t a top-top recruit.” said Porter. “I wanted to go to a school that could compete at the top level. I wanted to be competing at the NCAA’s,” he added.

Since arriving at UVA, Porter has knocked 10 seconds off his mile time and ran an impressive 3: 39.73 in the 1500m this season. He attributes his rapid improvement to his coach’s belief in his abilities from the beginning. “All the right people have my back and believe in me. Coach Vin is a huge part of that. He just had that belief even when he was recruiting me. He didn’t recruit me to keep running 4:10. He had big goals and I believed in that. ” he said.

Conor Murphy shares a similar path of improvement as he became a whole new runner at Virginia. The son of two former distance runners at Providence College picked up the sport his freshman year of high school. “Cross country my freshman year was the first time I tried out running.” he said. “I was always lower middle distance. I kind of struggled in cross country and even the mile. I ran alright, but the 800m was always my event. ”

Looking at Murphy’s collegiate results you wouldn’t be able to tell you were looking at an athlete that struggled in the mile. In his first year at Virginia, Murphy clocked a 4: 00.09 mile at the Virginia Grand Prix that took 14 seconds off his high-school best time while continuing to excel in the 800m earning bronze at the ACC Outdoor Championships.

“During the recruiting process Vin watched a couple videos of me racing and he said he thought I was more of a miler than an 800 runner. So, when I got here, we started transitioning a little bit and doing a little more mileage… last outdoor season I did two 1500-meters and a mile. I almost broke four in the mile and then this year starting in Raleigh Relays the whole group really started putting it together. ” said Murphy of his improvement.

The Raleigh Relays served as a clear milestone for the Cavaliers this season. Following an indoor season where the group displayed its potential, the Hoos kickstarted their outdoor season with a bang in the 1500m. Justin Wachtel strode to a victory in his heat with a personal-best time which led to a 1-2-3 finish for Yasin Sado, Ka’eo Kruse and Nathan Mountain. Murphy recorded a personal-best before Porter eventually won the event posting a time of 3: 39.73. Porter and Murphy each credited their team’s collective mentality as a driving factor for their success.

“All those 1500m heats are so far apart so we started warming up when Justin ran and we heard over the speakers ‘Justin Wachtel from Virginia is going to win it’ and that just got it rolling.” Porter recalled with a smile. “Once he did that and I saw Yasin, Ka’eo and Nate go 1-2-3 and it was just a sense of calm.” he said.

According to Porter and Murphy, that sense of calm is a direct result of the confidence they gain from their teammates based on the bond they share and the training they go through together.

“Most of it is about if [a teammate] is running fast, and I am doing the same training as him, I can run fast, and we saw that at Raleigh Relays… It just gives you a really big confidence boost if you think about it the right way. ” said Murphy. “Instead of thinking he ran fast so I need to run fast, it’s thinking he ran fast so I am going to run fast.”

Lananna’s first recruiting class was given an opportunity to establish a strong culture living on the same floor during the 2020-21 season. “It was a good time.” Porter recounted with a laugh “We had a lot of fun with all of us living on one floor together… I think that’s part of what brought us so close together. Our first year we were together almost 24/7. It was just kind of our group. ”

That culture was only strengthened when the following class took their own initiative to meet in Boulder, Colorado to train together and build team chemistry prior to their arrival on grounds in the fall. “We all planned that together.” said Barnett “I think the Colorado trip was mostly a team bonding experience. We obviously trained but a lot of us came off racing really late from our senior track seasons… We all just wanted to get to know each other a little before coming into college and just build some team chemistry. ” she added.

Originally serving as a rest stop for two of his newest teammates, Justin Wachtel and Andrew Jones, who were traveling west, Porter found himself packing his own bags.

Wachtel and Jones were traveling west from Georgia and made a stop in Kansas City to stay with Porter before completing their trip. “Dude, you should just come out!” they said to Porter as they attempted to convince the sophomore to join them. A week after Wachtel and Jones left, Porter made the trip himself and met up with his new teammates in Boulder.

“It was just cool to get altitude training and just run. That’s all I had to do every day was just run which was super fun. ” Porter recalled of the trip. “Credit to the freshmen for getting that all organized.” he added.

The Wahoos have seen great success already but are far from complacent. Three Cavaliers rank in the top-seven of the ACC while Porter and Kruse each rank in the nation’s top-10 in the 1500m. Barnett and Appleton have each posted two of the ACC’s top-three 1500m times while Yasin Sado leads the conference in the 3000m steeplechase and ranks eighth nationally.

“Last year was the highest amount of people we have ever had at regionals as a team. So hopefully that number becomes even bigger this year and we can get more people to the NCAA Championships. ” said Murphy. “Long term we want to make ourselves a household name in the ACC and always be in contention to win the conference.”

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