Coppin State takes long road Cross-country team fights stereotypes


It is one of the last college campuses you would go to when looking for a championship cross-country team.

Head out to the not-so-wide-open spaces North Avenue, turn north on Warwick, and if you aren't paying attention, you'll be turning around at Mondawmin Mall. Coppin State might have a semi-famous basketball program, but it doesn't have on-campus housing or a track. Many of its athletes are living at UMBC while a 300-bed dormitory is being finished, and Don Webster's distance men do their speed work at Douglass High.

The running fraternity won't be surprised if Coppin State beats defending champion Maryland and host UMBC in the state championship meet tomorrow (10 a.m.), but there's irony aplenty. Cross country usually has served as nothing more than a fall base for track and field at the nation's historically black colleges, and Webster said that's the Eagles' motivation.

"The goal isn't getting to the NCAA [cross country] championships," Webster said. "It's the 4x800 and distance medley relays next spring."

If Coppin State deflates a few biases along the way, so be it.

"There used to be a misconception that blacks can't run long distances," Webster said. "We still haven't been able to recruit any legitimate long-distance runners, a mileage freak who loves to train 100 miles a week, but times are changing. This is all about making people understand that they have the ability to do things they were told they couldn't."

Africans have dominated Olympic races from the 800 meters up for the last two decades, but Webster said athletic dreams in the United States are different, and he's backed up by Olympic rosters. Recent Georgetown grad Steve Holman, in the 1,500, was the only black to represent the U.S. in a race longer than the 800 at the Olympics in August, and even his participation was a milestone.

"Historically, distance running hasn't been an attractive sport to black Americans," Webster said. "Everyone who goes out for high school track wants to be a sprinter. Look, if you grow up in the inner city, where are you going to run long distances?"

Webster, 48, was a sprinter himself. The nation's fastest high school quarter-miler when he was a senior at Kennett (Pa.) Consolidated in 1960, he ran for Villanova and Cal State-Hayward, and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1972.

Webster tried assorted sales and coaching jobs, and assisted Morgan State's Leonard Braxton for two seasons before moving to Coppin State in 1989. Talent began arriving the following fall, and the top achiever in the junior class is actually a woman, since Diana Pitts qualified for the NCAA championships and Olympic Trials in the 800 this year.

The junior class includes Courtney Bennett, the defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion who has been running No. 2 this season behind classmate Nicholas Eugene. Fellow juniors Sam Willoughby, Euan Hinds and Larry English follow in the Eagles' pecking order, with freshman Jason Edwards and sophomore Kelvin Barton mixing in.

They spend their afternoons together, surging through Druid Hill and Hanlon Parks.

Willoughby and English are Pennsylvanians. Bennett, Hinds, Edwards and Barton prepped in New York, although Bennett immigrated from Jamaica and Hinds from Guyana. Eugene is from St. Lucia in the West Indies.

"I learned about Nicholas [Eugene] from a St. Lucia architect who was trying to sell us a track," Webster said. "He's no longer with that firm and we didn't get the track, but we did get Nicholas."

Willoughby's background is typical. He was fourth in the 800 meters at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships, and holds the school record in the 1,500. He and his teammates spend the winter and spring angling for berths on the Eagles' 4 x 800 relay, but cross country races are usually 8,000 meters, just under five miles.

"It wasn't a difficult adjustment, moving up to 8K," Eugene said. "Besides, it's great conditioning for the 800. He [Webster] is building a program around distance runners, and it's working."

Navy will be at the Indiana Invitational tomorrow, checking out the NCAA championships course, and Webster is aware that Al Cantello's Mids would put five runners in front of Eugene -- cross country's version of a shutout. Navy runs at another level, one that includes the likes of Arkansas, Iowa State and Villanova.

Closer to home, Coppin State edged UMBC at the Metro Invitational on Sept. 12, but was narrowly defeated by Maryland in the latter's invitational two weeks ago. Next month the Eagles will be favored to repeat their sweep of the men's and women's MEAC titles, but Webster said he doesn't know if Coppin State has the best cross country team among the nation's historically black colleges.

"Who knows?" Webster said. "There's never been a way to check in the past. It hasn't been that important."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad