Many of us have heard the Cinderella stories of great sports teams that have done the unexpected. This is mainly because their stories are so riveting they are turned into movies, such as “Remember the Titans,” “Glory Road,” and many others.
With a guiding hand from an exceptional leader, the individuals on these teams were able to tap into their potential, come together, and make history.
Head coach Brian O’Neal was hired in 2012, which led to 25-year-old Ryan Vanhoy getting the job of the men’s distance coach going into the 2013 season.
O’Neal said the two shared similar philosophies.
“I feel he has the sincere desire to help each of our distance runners compete to the best of their ability,” he said.
Before Vanhoy, O’Neal hired coach Gavin Kennedy, who recruited a group of eight incoming freshman. Kennedy was later dismissed from the staff and replaced by a younger coach from Northeastern University, who had only arrived in Oxford in mid-August, a week before the team was to report to campus.
“I knew when I first got here a handful of the guys that were recruited were talented,” said Vanhoy. “But, most of them didn’t train over the summer, and one didn’t come until the spring semester.”
It was more difficult than Vanhoy expected, but the experience was good.
“I think it helped open their eyes to the fact that they were talented athletes, but they couldn’t just walk through it like they did in high school,” he said.
By the middle of the season, Vanhoy noticed some progression in his team’s performance, but it was not at the level he had hoped. However, he still saw the guy’s potential for improvement.
Just in time for the SEC Conference meet in Gainesville, Florida, freshman Trevor Gilley had a break-out race claiming a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team, followed shortly by freshman Robert Domanic, who was sick during the conference meet, but bounced back to claim All-Region honors at the Regional race in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Now, that the cross country season was over, it was time to begin setting new goals for the indoor track season. It was also time for freshman Sean Tobin, an incoming freshman from Ireland, and Daniel Bulmer, a graduate student from Australia, to arrive on the Ole Miss campus.
“Those were two guys that came in and pretty much did it by the book,” said Vanhoy. “I think a lot of our guys looked to that and learned from that.”
Vanhoy said it’s important to make the sport a lifestyle for those who want success in running, including eating a healthy diet, going to bed at a decent hour, and getting up in the morning to run.
“That type of attitude and approach can be infectious,” he said.
As the indoor season began to progress, Vanhoy pointed to the Armory Invitational in New York City as the turning point of the season with the men’s Distance Medley relay team, as the guys dominated the race and finished first. A few weeks later, the DMR claimed first place in the SEC championship, along with a runner-up finish from Sean Tobin in the mile.
“Once I came in the second week of January, I just wanted to hit the ground running,” said Tobin. “I think there was a lack of leadership in the past cross country season, and a lot of the guys got a taste of success, so now they are eager for more.”
After a successful outdoor season where the team continued to improve, summer training included a team camp that the men put together on their own in Flagstaff, Arizona, for four weeks, which helped the men put in quality training as a team.
“We had a focus coming in this year that we wanted to be prepared,” said Trevor Gilley, a sophomore this year. “Once we added more competitive people, everyone else started pushing themselves really hard.”
Now, in their second year of collegiate running, the team came into the season as veterans who had the goal of making program history by doing something that has never been done – making it to the NCAA National Championship.
Just shy of an SEC Championship by falling to Arkansas by only four points, the Rebels claimed the regional title in Tallahassee, Florida, with Wes Gallagher – a junior transfer from Northeastern, – Tobin, and Domanic placing third, fourth, and fifth overall, followed by Gilley (19th), freshman Taylor Caldwell (24th), and freshman Mark Robertson (29th).
This made five out of seven Rebels finish with All-Regional honors. This automatically catapulted the men to the NCAA championship, where they placed 29th out of 31 teams.
Now, at the age of 27, Ryan Vanhoy has managed to drastically alter a once mediocre program into what may soon turn into a distance powerhouse.
Headed by his undying belief as a coach who works to further their success, and the exceptional dedication of the athletes that have become leaders for one another as the men continue to grow as a team, the Rebels have shown a transformation much like those other Cinderella stories.
“The good thing about the transformation is they started to see themselves differently.” said Vanhoy. “They started to see themselves as the people to beat in our conference. They started to see themselves as the athletes I see them as. Once they started to have success I think their perspective of themselves changed for the better.”