While building a dynasty is no easy task, sometimes maintaining one can prove to be even more challenging.

For the women’s cross country team – which entered the 2001 season with a streak of finishing in the Top 10 nationally for the past 13 years – history was clearly on the side of the Hoyas. But never before had it seemed as though the odds were so stacked against Georgetown’s favor.

Only three out of the top seven runners from the 2000 season were returning, the freshman recruiting class was regarded as mediocre at best and with the track atop Kehoe Field in shambles because of construction, the team’s facilities went from bad to non-existent.

Meanwhile, the man in the middle of it all, Director of Track and Field and Cross Country, Ron Helmer, faced one of the biggest challenges of his career: maintaining the dynasty, the streak and the prestige of the program he helped bring to the forefront of collegiate distance running.

Junior All-American Marni Kruppa seemed to be the only sure thing on an otherwise young and inexperienced team. So to be successful, Helmer – along with all other coaches in the nation – knew Georgetown would have to rely on middle-distance runners and freshmen to carry the load.

Despite the streak of finishing in the Top 10 every year for over a decade, most insiders seemed to recognize Georgetown’s precarious position, and the Hoyas received a No. 11 ranking in the pre-season coaches poll. Apparently the pundits thought converting half-milers and milers to run six-kilometer races and grooming a crop of unexceptional and untested freshmen to compete at the national level was simply far too great a challenge.

But not only did Ron Helmer overcome the challenge, he conquered it in a way that should serve as a warning to never underestimate his teams ever again.

Georgetown’s “A” team went undefeated until the national championship, where it tied a school record by finishing third, and Helmer effectively transformed junior middle distance runners Jill Laurendeau and Erin Sicher into two of the top collegiate cross country athletes in the nation.

Freshman Nicole Lee also emerged out of virtual anonymity to defeat the high school cross-country national champion of her graduating class and finish as the final point-scorer for the Hoyas at the NCAA Championship. More recently, Lee earned a spot on the United States Junior Cross Country team and finished fourth for the U.S. at the World Championships in Dublin, Ireland.

“Nobody thought we’d get our milers to run great gross country,” Helmer said. “And Nicole Lee was a pleasant surprise. But what made this team great was its chemistry. We had great leadership, and when you get a group of athletes together who are willing to take responsibility for their own performance, and have the maturity to do that despite being young, you know you’re working with a special group of people.”

And as far as teams go, it’s hard to get much younger. Besides Kruppa, nobody entered the season with more than two years of collegiate cross county experience.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough was Laurendeau, who despite never running collegiate cross country, ran No. 1 for the team at nationals and picked up All-American honors. When indoor season rolled around, Laurendeau not only raced to NCAA qualifying times in the 800m and mile, but with a depth of ability rarely seen in college track, also met NCAA standards in the 3,000m.

Success can largely be attributed to Helmer’s self-described “simple, no-nonsense” approach, which focuses on training.

“The need for preparation is obvious,” Helmer said. “Then, once the preparation is in place, competing should become fun. As a coach, I live for the opportunity to line people up who I know have done the work.”

And by all indications, it’s well understood that hard work is not only encouraged, it’s required.

“I don’t like dealing with all the fluff and peripheral issues,” Helmer said. “I just want athletes who can take responsibility and do their jobs without making excuses.”

His team seems to understand the level of professionalism and dedication Helmer demands of his athletes.

“Coach Helmer can be intimidating at times,” Laurendeau said. “On my recruiting visit, he told me, `We don’t want anyone who doesn’t want to run fast,’ so you learn from the start what kind of program you’re getting into. And the way he goes about his business makes it clear that he wants people who give 100 percent, day in and day out, just like he does.”

While strict and straightforward, dealing with the adversity of the 2001-02 season has also revealed Helmer’s more sensitive, optimistic side.

“He may have a hard shell, but he’s a big softy inside,” Laurendeau said. “He’s become a father figure – a dad away from dad, or parent away from parents – to a lot of the girls on the team.”

While having high expectations, Helmer also exhibits a refreshing sense of empathy for his athletes sometimes lacking in coaches with similar “win-at-all-costs” coaching styles.

“Something I’m very proud of is that we’re accomplishing everything we are without a track, and we’re doing it with a good attitude,” Helmer said. “To bring some of the greatest athletes in the country to a place without a facility, and inconvenience them in that manner says a lot about their character.”

And with a men’s 2002 recruiting class that features Chris Lukezic and Courtney Jaworski, the nation’s top miler and half-miler, respectively, along with a solid women’s class, progress is obviously still being made despite the setbacks.

“The way I see it, we can approach things in one of two ways: We can look at what we don’t have or what we do have,” Helmer said. “It’s not difficult to attract people here because Georgetown is Georgetown. We have a great group of alumni, and I’m confident that over time, the number of scholarships we have will step up to the level of other schools in the Big East.”

Until then, don’t expect to see the Hoyas falling in any of the national rankings. Both teams are currently continuing to qualify athletes for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, and next fall’s cross country season is panning out to be one of the best in recent years, with the men’s team returning sophomore Franklyn Sanchez and junior Mike Smith after redshirting last season, and the women’s team retaining their entire starting seven.

But with running being a year-round sport, some of the hardest work is yet to come, as Helmer designs programs for the summer aimed at keeping Georgetown cross country among the nation’s elite.

“Coach Helmer has a difficult job,” Laurendeau said. “He needs to write workouts for each person, fit them according to their ability, and get everyone on the team to run as fast as they can. For the sacrifices that he’s made for us, and all the time and effort he’s put into this program to get it up to where we are, he deserves an award.”

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