As Salisbury State's Suzy McCulloch ran toward the finish line, her victory in a recent cross country race a foregone conclusion, an old acquaintance confirmed his astonishment.
Dr. Charles Brown, UMBC's athletic director and youth sports coach to McCulloch's older sister, could only say, "I wish I'd known she was a runner."
Until recently, she hadn't been.
But McCulloch, in her second season at Salisbury, is much more than that. She's also a swimmer and a cyclist who aspires to represent the United States in the 2004 Olympics as a triathlete.
"She wants to be best at whatever she does," says Eric Ratcliffe, McCulloch's boyfriend and another member of the SSU team. "If she wants to succeed at something, she always will."
The U.S. Olympic Committee bought her bicycle. Another patron is PowerBar, and of course there's the SSU running program, which allows her to improve her running in the fall and skip the track season because spring is the busiest part of the triathlete's schedule.
That includes the world triathlon championships, of which she will be a part in April in Perth, Australia.
"My biggest thing is triathlons, and I knew that I could focus on that here," McCulloch said after dusting Division I competition in the Maryland state collegiate meet, explaining why she ventured to Division III Salisbury. "I knew I would do cross country, but I wouldn't be made to do track. I wanted a little bit of flexibility."
McCulloch had been a starter on Centennial High's state championship volleyball team until she decided to run in the Race for the Cure. The decision was partly motivated by her mother, Winnie, a cancer survivor.
Though she had been a recreational runner to that point, she had run a 5: 41 mile during volleyball conditioning and ended up winning her age group in the 3-kilometer race. "Ever since then," she said, "that's when I decided to change my sports."
It was a change for the better. McCulloch was an All-Metro selection during her senior season, breaking several course records while winning Howard County and regional championships.
Toward the end, she did her first triathlon on the Columbia Triathlon Course, and earned an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, which she has gone to in each of the past two summers.
McCulloch has won each of her four races heading into the Mason-Dixon race in Salisbury this weekend.
"Before every meet, everyone fills out their goal time," Salisbury coach Jim Jones said. "Her goal every week is simply to win. She doesn't care about time, but she cares about first place."
In her freshman year at Salisbury, she won four of her seven races, finishing no worse than fourth before a stress fracture in her right hip ended her season.
This year brought in Jones as coach to replace Cliff Latham, who went to Texas A&M.; Jones is trying to adjust to McCulloch's cross-training. He wouldn't mind having the points McCulloch could provide during track season, but he might be more anxious about those missing when she's unavailable for meets in the fall.
The qualifying meet for the World Triathlon Championships fell on the same weekend as a cross-country meet for the Sea Gulls. The choice of which to attend was clear for McCulloch.
"This is a chance for me to go to Australia, or I can go to New York," she said as a way of explaining her choice. "Having a first-year coach anywhere, there's going to be conflicts, but it's nothing too bad."
Another quality cross-country convert in the region is UMBC's Jen Ecker, who finished second to McCulloch in the Maryland state championships. Ecker, a sophomore from Mount Hebron, was a club swimmer who had never run competitively until 10 months ago, when she tried out for the track team.
After finishing third in Northeast Conference championships at 10,000 meters, she's followed up with a strong fall, winning the Baltimore Metro Championships last month and setting a school record (18: 50) in the Maryland state meet.
Success in soccer
One of the region's hottest offensive players in college soccer might be Western Maryland's Beth Blasi, who has three hat tricks in her team's last four games.
Blasi went to Division I West Virginia after earning player of the year honors in Harford County during her past two seasons at Fallston. She stayed in Morgantown long enough to play in one game and take one shot. Then she left, saying the demands of that program didn't leave much room for actual college life.
At the Division III level, Blasi has thrived. She could break three school or conference records for goals within the next week.
At Towson, Alfonso DeMares was named America East's player of the week after recording two goals and two assists in wins over New Hampshire and Maine.
While the UMBC men's soccer team is raising eyebrows with its 13-0-1 start, the Retrievers aren't top dogs in the NEC. That honor belongs to Mount St. Mary's, which has rebounded from a rocky start against tough competition to an eight-game winning streak and 7-0 league mark. That puts it ahead of UMBC, which has a tie with Fairleigh Dickinson as the blemish on its 6-0-1 league mark.
The Catonsville Community College women's volleyball team just finished its second consecutive undefeated season (11-0) in the Maryland JuCo Conference. The team, ranked No. 9 in NJCAA Division II, is 21-11 overall. Towson plans to induct five into its Athletic Hall of Fame tonight. Lacrosse players John Como, '81, Ron Klausner, '89, and Gutridge Lavelle, '86, football player Kurt Beathard, '87, and softball player Kerrin Mohr O'Neil.