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Virginia cross country hitting its stride behind Coach Vin Lananna

Ahead of hosting this year’s NCAA Championships, the Cavaliers are emerging as a force behind Lananna’s experience and wisdom

<p>Under Lananna's guidance, both men's and women's cross country teams have earned top 10 rankings in the national polls this year.</p>

Under Lananna's guidance, both men's and women's cross country teams have earned top 10 rankings in the national polls this year.

There is something special brewing on the roads, trails and tall grass of Charlottesville — as their regular seasons come to a close, Virginia’s men’s and women’s cross country teams find themselves ranked 10th and seventh, respectively, in the USTFCCCA Coaches’ National Poll. The mastermind behind it all is Vin Lananna, Virginia director of track and field and cross country . Lananna is a legend of the running community, with perhaps the greatest coaching resume in collegiate athletics, elite recruiting and talent development abilities and a clear vision for the Cavaliers’ program.

“It’s pretty simple what I envision happening,” Lananna said at Saturday’s XC23 College & Open Pre-Nationals at Panorama Farms in Charlottesville. “I envision us being a contender for every NCAA Championship.”

Lananna recently signed an extension to remain Virginia’s Director of Track and Field and Cross Country through 2028. He took the reins for the Cavaliers in 2019 after a nine-year hiatus from collegiate coaching spent with Team USA and has gradually moved the program towards his ultimate goal. Lananna has instilled a strong team culture and drawn national attention to Charlottesville in his tenure with the programs.

“Vin has done an excellent job of advancing our track and field and cross country programs since joining our staff in 2019,” Athletic Director Carla Williams said upon the announcement of Lananna’s extension. “He was instrumental in bringing the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships to U.Va. and has taken a holistic approach in recruiting and developing talent across each track and field discipline.”

Upon his arrival, Virginia cross country initially got off to a slow start for Lananna’s standards, in part due to a delay in recruitment due to COVID-19. With Lananna’s first full class coming in last year, both the men’s and women’s sides began to pick up the pace, qualifying for the NCAA Championships, where the women achieved their first top-10 finish since 2013. Now with another year of training and experience under their belt, the team appears to be inching towards greatness — evidenced by their top 10 rankings in the national polls. 

While Lananna’s goals for the Cavaliers may seem lofty, he is perhaps the most experienced and decorated coach of all time and is fully capable of bringing hardware to Virginia. He is tied for the most Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year awards with six across head coaching stints at Dartmouth, Stanford and Oregon. He was awarded this title at all three schools, a feat no other coach has accomplished. He has represented Team USA as a coach over the course of six World Championships and Olympic Games. Perhaps the greatest title Lananna holds is President of USA Track & Field, a position he has held since 2016.

His collegiate resume already includes six national titles — four with Stanford and another two with Oregon. Towards the end of his illustrious stint in Palo Alto, Lananna worked to create the highly competitive Payton Jordan Invitational, boosting recruiting and program success for the Cardinal for years to come. Lananna played a role in similar endeavors at Oregon, advocating for their hosting of the World Championships and Olympic Trials while helping renovate the Ducks’ state-of-the art Hayward Field.

Now, in year five at Virginia, Lannana’s vision of bringing the same prestige to Charlottesville is becoming realized — beginning with the selection of the Cavaliers’ own Panorama Farms as the host site for this year’s NCAA Championships thanks to his efforts. Virginia has not hosted the meet since 1987, when the race took place at the historic Foxfield Races course.

“He's always talked about making Charlottesville the running capital of the East Coast,” fifth-year senior Jacob Hunter said on Lananna’s passion for growing the community. 

Virginia’s steps toward this season’s success can be attributed to hosting highly competitive races on their home course, such as the Virginia Invitational and Pre-Nationals, against some of the fastest teams in the nation. Regular season meets such as these reveal how elite teams stack up head to head against each other, and Virginia proved that they can hold their own with the best.

“These meets this year have been a lot more beneficial for us — in previous years we haven't had as much competition,” Hunter said. “It definitely prepares us for NCAAs.”

Amidst the hype, national attention and events drawn in by Lananna, the talent of the runners on the men’s and women’s sides should not be overlooked. The 10th-ranked men’s squad is led by breakout star sophomore Gary Martin. Martin showed great potential last year, coming to Charlottesville as one of the nation’s fastest recruits. He threw down impressive times during the cross-country and track seasons, but his outdoor postseason was cut short due to illness. Martin appears to have returned hungrier than ever, finishing as the Cavalier’s first runner in both races he has run in this season. 

This is a change for Virginia, as they ran well as a group last season but lacked a consistent number one runner. The Cavaliers seem to have maintained their strength in the pack, though, as Martin has been followed very closely by fellow sophomore Will Anthony and junior Nate Mountain. 

It is clear that Lananna is impressed by Martin but expects his teammates to keep pace. 

“[Lananna] is all about the pack mentality,” Hunter said. “And he's sort of preached that all his years here.”

On the women’s side, a developing story has been the pleasant surprise of junior Jenny Schilling. The team, trying to build upon their top-10 finish at NCAAs from last year, has shoes to fill as they saw two of their top five leave last season. Schilling walked on to the team this fall after not running her freshman year and then training and racing on her own and with Virginia’s running club. Schilling’s hard work was displayed in her first two Division I races, as she inserted herself as the number three runner on a very talented Virginia team. 

“Jenny is obviously a really talented young woman who is just beginning to look at what this is like on Division I,” Lananna said. “She's really risen to the occasion. She's a great competitor. She trained hard, and she's been a welcome addition.”

Schilling has worked well with junior Margot Appleton and senior Anna Workman, who have finished first and second respectively for Virginia in each of their races.

The speed is evident on paper, but for both teams the X factor is the chemistry they have built both on and off the course.

“I think if you ask any guy on the team, one of the first things they’ll mention is how close we are and the team culture,” Martin said. “We work out in big groups, we race in big groups and I think it’s what really helps us get each other through the hard parts of races.” 

Schilling stressed how having girls around her while running has made her transition to the team so seamless, crediting the team’s fall break trip to building a strong bond. 

“We had a lot of deep conversations and I feel like we've all gotten a lot closer this season,” said Schilling.

Lananna’s impact thus far is not merely his strong recruiting and work securing prestigious meets in Charlottesville — his impact can be seen in the bonds and culture he has instilled in Virginia’s cross country teams. Lananna has brought tremendous success to every running program and community he has been a part of, and it is clear that he has the tools in a supportive town and an elite unit of runners to inject Charlottesville with the same magic. 


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