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W&M XC Part 2: Beginnings of the Programs

Steve Prefontaine is viewed by many as an absolute legend. He competed in the 1972 Olympics and set American records at every distance from 2K to10K. Interestingly, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of his winning the NCAA Cross Country championships in Williamsburg with William & Mary as the host team. Pre’s win was about the only thing that was normal at that finish line. Here is the synopsis.

The race was run on a course that was part of the Anheuser-Busch Company’s malt farm as well as W&M’s Kingsmill cross country training route. Favorites in the race were Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine and Villanova’s Marty Liquori. Those two teams were also the favorites. The William and Mary team was composed of Hal Michael, Ron Martin, Bill Louv, Steve Snyder, Jay Gsell, Randy Fields, and Pete Jones.

As runners came to the finish, the first oddity was Steve Prefontaine’s apparent collapse just past the finish. He was dragged through the chute by meet officials. Shortly after that, a runner fell at the finish causing a massive pile-up. After that, the finish order of runners became confused.

Fortunately, local TV news had taken movies of the event and it was used to settle the order of finishers. But there was a problem: the film had to be developed as it was probably a 35mm movie film and the camera was not set up exactly at the finish line. The dispute dragged on. Our own Shelby Hawthorne reported in Track & Field News: “All of the individual heroics took a back seat to the big question: who was the team champion?” The Villanova coach had filed a protest stating that one of their runners should advance from 67th place to 60th place. The film later proved he was correct.

At the awards ceremony, William & Mary’s coach John Randolph emphasized that the results were unofficial. The following morning, when officials could finally examine the film, the errors in scoring were corrected. Villanova won with 85 points and Oregon came in second with 86. William & Mary was tenth with 366. While the officials were looking at the film to sort out the finish, the Oregon team joined the W&M team at their traditional post-cross country race party in the Lake Matoaka picnic shelter. Prefontaine liked to party---let’s just leave it at that!

There are legitimate reasons for athletes or coaches to miss a competition. Is buying a newspaper one of those? During the 1970 season, the team traveled to New York City to compete in the IC4A cross country meet at Van Cortlandt Park. On Saturday, Coach Randolph took the varsity team up in a van. The freshmen followed on the train Sunday for the Monday race as there were separate competitions for varsity and the freshmen teams. When the train stopped in Philadelphia, assistant coach Ashton Godley got off to get a newspaper. He did not make it back in time and the train departed. Luckily, Coach Randolph was waiting for the freshman at the station. That year Ron Martin led the freshman team to a 4th place finish.

Ron Martin had grown up in England and run at a club level before coming to William & Mary. The clubs in England had a wide range of age groups participating so after the races, in the English style, the club members would go to a pub. John Randolph was a Marine Officer who had been deployed to Vietnam and was a “by-the-rules” guy. After the race at Van Cortlandt, Ron offered to buy Coach Randolph a beer; that did not go over very well. Ron may have gotten the eyes of death.

One of the principal qualities about John Randolph, which allowed him to survive his tour in Vietnam, was his ability to treat all enlisted men equally regardless of race or background and, fundamentally, to lead. When asked about Randolph, Paul Verkuil, President of the College from 1985 through 1992, recently stated: “John was as true and caring as they come. A Marine with guts and a big heart”. Randolph could get a group lined up and fighting in the same direction. This quality of Randolph’s would enable him to build one of the best cross country teams that William & Mary has ever fielded.

As one of the most important advancements bringing equality to women’s sports, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971. The AIAW was the women’s equivalent of the NCAAs at that time. In 1975, Joy Kelly would be the first W&M runner to compete in a national XC meet. She qualified for the AIAW meet which was in Ames, Iowa. The W&M women’s athletic department agreed to fly Joy to the meet, but not Baxter Berryhill, the men’s assistant coach who was coaching her, to Iowa. As a result, Joy went on her first airplane flight alone to compete in the biggest race of her life. She finished 107th out of almost 200---with a stress fracture she got stepping in a hole about mile 3.

The first W&M women’s team participated in the 1981 AIAW DII national championship meet. On a windy, rainy, cold course at 4500ft elevation, Cathy Sardo, Alison Hawley, Trish Flaherty, Trish Henry, and Robin Roughton competed in Pocatello, Idaho.

The women’s program has also succeeded despite adversity. Like most women’s sports, the program did not gain sufficient scholarship funding until the 1990s, due to pressure associated with the implementation of Title IX. At the start of the program, even basic equipment was an issue. For example, the women’s XC team didn’t get real uniforms until the fall of 1978. Prior to that, the women wore whatever they could find- including t-shirts from the bookstore and old volleyball uniforms.

Coaching has also been spotty at best, which makes their multiple successes even more impressive in their short history. As a result, many of the women on the team have had impressive running careers in their post-collegiate years, where they received better coaching. Some prominent examples include Sonja Friend-Uhl, Kathy Newberry, and Megan Holden. All three ran in the Olympic Trials.

Newberry made five World Cross Country teams for the United States. Friend-Uhl has been a member of 6 US World Teams, holds multiple US Master’s titles, and is the reigning World record holder in the Master’s women indoor mile. Yet neither Kathy nor Sonja nor Megan ever earned All-American status while at W&M. These women continued to represent William & Mary with distinction long after their collegiate eligibility expired.

Before Title IX came into force, there were uneven but always forward marching steps to launch the women’s program. Prior to 1977, Joy Kelly, Jeanne Lull, and Laura Sardo launched the “W&M XC Club” training alongside the men under the aegis of Baxter Berryhill.

In 1977, W&M women took a major step toward equal opportunity in the sport & the history of our program. A group of women wanted to have a varsity cross country team. The athletic director said that was fine with him, but there was no money available and they had to have a coach who was a member of W&M staff. They appealed to Randy Hawthorne (an adjunct business professor at the time) to take the “job”. They won their first meet against Richmond 20 to 40 taking 2nd through 8th! That was their first of 5 meets.

At the end of the season, they announced that they wanted to go to the AIAW Regional meet at NC State and they had everything arranged. They would drive down and stay in the dorm room of Jon Michael, Hal Michael’s brother, who had run a year for W&M. They beat 2 teams being 10th of 12 teams. In the fall of 1978, the women’s XC team won the Virginia State Championship meet and competed again in the AIAW Regional meet.

After the 1981 AIAW appearance, the women's program's next team Championship appearance was in 1990 where they secured a 20th place finish. Over the course of 29 seasons, the program has appeared at the Championship meet an additional 8 times for a total of 9 appearances. The program’s highest finish came in 1998, placing 10th as future pro runner Kathy Newberry led the team in Lawrence, Kansas, on arguably the most difficult NCAA course ever. Although the women would return almost their entire varsity team the next fall, the team didn’t qualify again for NCAAs until 2002.

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