Through his three years at Ball State, the junior class for the cross country team has been with head coach Adrian Wheatley since the start.
The junior class, which makes up almost one-fourth of the team, consists of Sarah Mahnensmith, Jessica Velez, Jenna Schifferer and Shelby Christman.
Even though Christman recently transferred to Ball State from Huntington University, she is consistently a top finisher for the Cardinals.
Mahnensmith and Schifferer both recorded season personal records (PRs) at the 2023 Loyola Lakefront Invitational with times of 21:46.3 and 24:01.0, respectively. While Christman and Velez recorded career PRs of 22:07.7 and 22:41.0, respectively, at the 2023 Mel Brodt Invitational.
Wheatley said the juniors have been competing fiercely throughout this season.
“I know they are committed to themselves and committed to the program,” Wheatley said. “It's been exciting to see their growth.”
Velez emphasized how important physical preparation is for her and her teammates.
“If you only do stuff at practice, you’re not doing yourself justice,” Velez said.
Outside of practice, the athletes stress the importance of seeing Ball State’s trainer, Kelsey Voga; she offers them specific strengthening exercises and advice on how to not overwork their muscles. Overworked muscles can lead to tendonitis and stress fractures, both of which are detrimental to an athlete’s season.
The juniors prepare for meets outside of practice by rolling out their muscles, stretching and eating right.
“It’s important to do the little things when we’re not [at practice],” Velez said.
She added it’s all about finding a balance; doing just the right amount of work necessary to receive the benefits and achieve success.
In collegiate cross country meets, the teams start together at the starting line, but then as the race progresses, and as the runners start to find their pace, they start to separate. Sometimes runners won’t have any other people with them and it gets harder to keep the pace that was set at the beginning of the race. This is when it comes in handy to keep a good mentality.
Velez stressed the significance of runners taking care of themselves mentally. If the girls are not proactive in dealing with mental anguish, it can lead to race anxiety or other stressors.
“It can get really intense, really fast,” Velez said.
The Cardinals have various ways of protecting their mental health; whether it be relying on their religion to relieve mental strife or just taking time out of their day to meditate and relax.
For Velez, she chooses to remind herself why she continues her journey in collegiate cross country.
“We all had the option to stop doing cross country in high school, but we didn’t want to stop doing it,” Velez said. “So, I try to remember my ‘why’ by having a positive mind and reminding myself that this sport makes me happy.”
This season, the Cardinals have started to choose a motivational word for the race or workout that they’re completing that day. They write it down physically on their hands or arms.
“At Loyola, I wrote ‘fun’ on my hand because I wanted to remind myself to have fun with the race,” Velez said. “If I’m going to be here on this day, I might as well have some fun while I’m here.”
Ball State relies on its mental performance consultant, Chelsea Davis. She often acts as a mental health coach for the girls when they’re in need of it.
“[Davis] is very supportive. If we’re feeling bad outside of practice, we can just shoot her a text,” Velez said. “She will help you out, 100 percent.”
The juniors said this season is all about positivity and supporting one another. Christman said that the Cardinals lift each other up to help people stay positive. Mahnensmith echoed Christman in saying that these are key elements that play a huge role during races.
“Having that mindset of positivity and being able to support each other, especially when someone’s down, it’s huge, especially in a race,” Mahnensmith said. “It overall helps the team to score.”
With Ball State’s cross country team being on the smaller side (a majority of its conference averages about 20 runners while Ball State has 15 on the roster), the juniors believe that this makes it easier to have closer relationships with their teammates.
“Being juniors allows us to be mentors and just give advice to the younger runners and try to make their transition [to college] easier,” Velez said. “We notice it a lot when we encourage each other while we’re running. If we do any long workouts on the track, an upperclassman will yell out ‘we’re at a mile’ and then say something really encouraging after”
“You go through the highs and the lows of the sport with them,” Christman said. “It’s important to remember that you’ve put in the work and just know that you’re prepared.”
As the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship creeps closer, the Cardinals plan on preparing for it just as any other meet. Coach Wheatley is confident that he and his team are capable of doing great things at the “big show.”
“We're going to commit to just making sure that everybody is healthy. We've got a good mindset and people are putting themselves in the position to be great,” Wheatley said.
With the physical and mental preparations, the juniors at Ball State have shown time and time again that they are capable of great things.
Their last dress rehearsal before the big show was Oct. 13 at the Bradley Pink Invitational. Ball State placed 22nd out of 33 teams.
Last year in the MAC Championships, Ball State placed 9th of 12. The Cardinals’ big show this year will take place Oct. 28 at Bowling Green University.
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