After earning first-team all-county honors his senior year at Atholton High School, cross country runner Gary Smolyak was faced with a difficult decision. With opportunities to run at schools such as UMBC and Salisbury, the former Raider needed to figure out exactly what he was looking for in terms of a collegiate running career.
After determining that he wasn't interested in joining a very high-stress program right away, Smolyak decided that Howard Community College was where he fit best.
"I thought Division III running would be more suited for me," he said. "It was also a close-to-home thing as well."
His decision ultimately paid off, and on Nov. 9, Smolyak traveled to Northfield, Mass. where he became the first individual NJCAA Division III national champion in Dragons' history. He finished the 8k race with a time of 27:48.
"It really didn't sink in that I won nationals until later that day," said Smolyak, recounting the moments after the race. "By the time the awards came around, it slowly started to hit me. It was a great feeling."
Former Reservoir runner Adam Gartrell placed ninth with a time of 28:48, Brooks Ward finished 23rd in 29:35, Sam Graves finished 50th in 31:01, John Leierzapf finished 61st in 31:27 and Eric Sugrove finished 118th in 28:23 to round out the boys finishers for the Dragons.
The boys team also finished fifth overall.
For the girls squad, Caroline Haden (Howard) just missed All-American status by coming in 16th with a time of 22:04. Anna Sandacz placed 24th in 22:39, Rachael Lape finished 54th in 24:34, Kayla Johnson was 62nd in 25:33, Cindy Rockefeller was 65th in 25:49, Gabrielle Petty was 70th in 26:12 and Shannon Stubs finished 87th in 28:23.
"It was a very good weekend for the teams," coach Steve Musselman said. "Everyone ran very tough today. I could not be more proud of what they accomplished."
Throughout the season, Smolyak's success on the cross country course has been rewarding. The first-year runner was selected first team All-Region, first team All-MD JUCO and the NJCAA Division III Runner of the Week (Oct. 28).
Just one year earlier, while at Atholton, Smolyak finished seventh at the county championship meet, eighth at the 3A East regionals and 17th in the 3A state race.
While his high school career was based on consistency, it wasn't until new coach Ivan Alvarado took his position as Atholton's outdoor track coach that Smolyak started to understand how to become a better runner.
"Coach Alvarado really disciplined me," he said. "He followed through on workouts and he even ran with us. That's a big thing."
By the spring of 2013, Smolyak had already made the decision to run at HCC. But, with Alvarado in his corner, he thought he could only get better.
Smolyak followed the 29-year Musselman's conditioning plan over the summer, and though he still didn't feel as though he was ready, the motivation for a successful season was beginning to take shape.
"When the first meet came around, that was my first time running a college 8k," he said. "I didn't really know what to expect, or how to pace myself. I figured I would just go out and see how it went."
With Musselman's experience serving as a guide, as well as following a continuous workout and stretching regimen, Smolyak started to see his times improve.
"I was running faster and faster with each meet, and by the time regionals came around, I thought I was in really good shape," he said.
At regionals, the hard work had started to pay off. Among both Division I and Division III runners, Smolyak placed second overall, first in his division.
Two weeks later, he would add to his collegiate awards collection with a national championship.
After a very successful freshman year with the Dragons, Smolyak said the decisions will not get any easier.