Cross country might be the most uniquely challenging sport in terms of early mornings, rigorous training, mental trials, and both literal and figurative rough terrains. The Mississippi College Cross Country coach Matthew Reneker believes that there is a sweet spot in terms of balancing training hard enough and not training too hard to where you burn your body out. “We are a sport where human performance is crucial,” he said. “Working hard is something everyone understands. There’s not enough work and then there’s also doing too much work. There does come a point where you could be working too hard. The goal for me and my athletes is to train hard and train hard appropriately for a long period of time.”
It is crucial for the team to be able to manage their training across multiple seasons as most of the team also runs long distance for track in the spring. Junior McKenzie Hargrove believes it can be tough to train for cross country knowing what’s in front of you for the next nine months, but she believes that it can be dealt with, saying, “It can be a little daunting coming into cross country season knowing that I’ll train and race till November, maybe get a week off, then train and race till finals week in May. If you think about how exhausting it will be, then it’s exhausting. But if you look at it as constant opportunity, you’re gonna train and race great. And that off week or two are just so much sweeter.”
The 2019 campaign was that of development and surprising success for the MC program. The women’s team had their best finish in the conference (third place) since coach Reneker took over, and the men’s team who also came in third nearly replicated their performance from last season even though they lost three of their top five runners to graduation.
The men’s team heavily surpassed expectations this season and even had a runner (sophomore Evan Del Rio) qualify for Nationals as an individual. Hargrove said of the men’s teams surprise season, “It was really encouraging seeing the program progress so well. The juniors and sophomores have really come a long way, and we brought in some really impactful freshmen and transfers. It gives us a lot of hope and excitement for the future of MC cross country.”
Reneker was extremely complimentary of the men’s team this past season saying,
“In 20 years of doing this, this is the most blue chip team I’ve done this with. The leadership of the upperclassmen with Alec [Beers], Jake [Russell], and Zak [Patrick]. They learned from their previous years. They shared so well that people overperformed. It happened due to team leadership. Gabe [Poulin] and Evan worked hard, but the others helped us get to where we are.”
For the cross country program, it has been a building process since Reneker took over three and a half years ago. He believes that the team members buying into his vision for the program, embracing it, and teaching it has been crucial to the program taking the steps forward that it has. “This has been a building process for four years. Going from one place in the conference to the middle to the top. The people on the team embracing the vision and then sharing that with the people on the team. If you can get the people on the team to buy in so much that they start teaching it themselves, then something is right.”
Reneker expects that building process to continue. He laid out a timeline for the program to continue to develop over the next decade plus, into an annual top 10 team in the country: “It’s safe to say that we are one of the top teams in the conference. Women have been building from sixth to fifth to third. That has been my goal, and to say in four years that we’re in the top of the conference. I think it’s gonna take another two years to be a permanent fixture at the top of the region. That should put us in the top 25 in the country. If we’re talking about top 10, that will take another four or six years.”
Back to Del Rio, who has already reached sky high success as only a sophomore. He finished second at the GSC championships this year and then finished fifth at the NCAA South Regional. Reneker believes that Del Rio, a Huntsville, Texas native, came in with a lot of talent but has matured immensely as a runner since arriving at MC. “It’s important to acknowledge the senior leadership Evan had as a freshman. There’s a learning curve. He went from one of the top guys in the state of Texas to trying to get in the top 5. Evan is extremely talented on his own, but he has matured in the process. If you’re very talented and don’t know how to work, then people don’t know how to follow what you’re doing, but if you know what you’re doing, then you can lead.”
Reneker is known as being one of the quirkiest coaches on campus and loves to have fun with his team. In terms of his coaching style, he says “I tell my athletes. There’s two things I want: I want to have fun, and I want to be good. I said, ‘Me having fun can look a certain way, us being good can look the exact same way, but if me having fun prevents us from being good, then I will look a very different way.’ I think it’s a Biblical thing, in terms of how I lead. I try to get the best out of them that I can. I try to show my athletes that I respect them and that I care for them, so when I do have to come down hard, they see it’s a serious thing, and that it’s not just time for fun.”
He does put a big emphasis on his Christian faith when it comes to coaching. Reneker wants to leave an impression on his athletes’ lives. Of how his Christian life relates to his coaching, he said, “From an individual standpoint, we are simple creatures. Our proclivity is to either worship running or to worship ourselves as runners. Some people have that condemnation, the other side is ‘I’m not good enough.’ I want to share the love of Christ in that God didn’t make you to be a runner—he allows you to be a runner. Either that or God loves no matter what your time is and what place you finish. From the team standpoint, I want them to understand that we are all uniquely made. That their gift is not running, that gift is adding to the body of Christ. I want them to embrace how they help the body of Christ”
Both cross country teams have created a great sense of unity within the group. Hargrove said, “Our team is super close. We are technically two teams (men’s and women’s) but it doesn’t feel that way at all. You really start to bond with a group of people when you see them every morning before the sun is up and run side by side every single day. Coach Reneker is also so great at relating to everyone on the team. He really holds the group together even on the most difficult days.”
She believes that the community is a great boost during races, saying, “Knowing your teammates so well means that you can come up with really good race strategies, you know how to encourage each individual, and you know you have a reliable support system. We also come up with strategies with Coach Reneker so we can have good communication with him during a race as well. It definitely gives a sense of security.”
The MC Cross Country team deals with a ton of external stressors, including the mental stress of being a college student while being a college athlete. So far, Matthew Reneker has begun to build the program into a continually high-finishing team in the Gulf South Conference. Based on the talent he has already accrued and what he has done so far in his first few seasons, there’s no reason to believe that the program won’t accomplish all of the goals that he has set up on his timeline of success.