Wichita State cross country coach Marc Burns looks at the times run by junior college athletes and begins to think.
What were the weather conditions? How strict is the training regimen? How tough is the competition? Once he knows some answers, he has a better idea of a runner's potential. Betting on significant improvement by junior college athletes is a recruiting strategy that works well for Burns.
"I kind of fell into it when I got here," he said. "I quickly learned the junior-college athlete doesn't necessarily have to have the national-level times for us to invest in them and get what we need."
Burns first saw the possibilities of the niche with Kellyn Johnson, a transfer from Cloud County Community College. She ran in three NCAA Championship track meets and won nine Missouri Valley Conference titles from 2007-09. Irene Kosgei, from Cowley College, helped the Shockers win a fourth straight MVC title in 2008. She teamed with newcomers Leah Thompson (Butler) and Tonya Nero (Colby) to win a fifth this fall. That trio finished in the top six.
Today, the Shockers run in the NCAA Midwest Region Championships in Springfield, Mo. Burns is counting on those three to give WSU, ranked eighth in the region, a chance to finish higher.
While those runners performed well in junior college, they didn't post times that attracted recruiting attention from top-level schools. Burns counts on the transfers quickly improving once they arrive at WSU. Nero ran a 5-minute, 25-second mile before the season in practice. At Colby, she topped out at a six-minute pace. Nero (18:07 in the 5-kilometer) and Thompson (18:09) finished fifth and sixth in the NJCAA cross country meet in 2008. Both ran under 17:50 in early October for WSU.
"It's just a matter of competition," Burns said. "When they get into that Division I system and race at that level every week, they just get better and better."
For the athletes, running in junior college is often a lonely sport. They are out in front of every training run and most races. At WSU, they are pushed by teammates and competitors.
"When you see other people running really hard, your instinct is to run hard," Kosgei said. "When I came here I learned to stay tough, be tough."
Thompson, from Salina, chose WSU because the training resembled the plan at Butler. With better runners pushing her, a bad day doesn't turn into a lost workout. The good days are made better with competition.
"You can't depend on an easy ride when you get here," she said. "You have to try to maintain your spot."