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Bloodlines keep Michigan State's O'Connor on the run

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Leah O'Connor will go to sleep Friday in Indiana with the plan in her head.

When the 6,000 meter race for the NCAA Women's Championship in cross country begins Saturday, the star of the No. 1 ranked Spartans will strive to make the strategy the only thing on her mind.

Michigan State has appeared in 16 of the NCAA women's championships. The highest finish is fourth.

Under Coach Walt Drenth, with O'Connor leading the way, they are among the favorites to win the individual and team national championships.

"For a 6k race, you're focused the whole time on something related to the race," said O'Connor, a daughter in a large family chockfull of runners. "If you're not, you kind of have to snap yourself back into it.

"It's so intense, and if you think about it, it's less than 20 minutes of running usually. And when you run as much as we do, that goes by really fast."

O'Connor, 22, a senior at Michigan State, became the first national steeplechase champion in Michigan State history in June, setting a school-record time, 9:36.43. She won the Big Ten cross country championship this month with a career-best and course-record time of 19:26.30.

The team is currently the best in school history, and pointed at a triumph that would seal a permanent place in the Spartans' long list of notable athletic accomplishment, in sports both highly-acclaimed and scarcely celebrated.

"We write race plans the night before the race, and we visualize what we want to do in the race and how we are going to handle different points of the course," O'Connor said, and she prepared this week.

She usually breaks it down into 1,000-meter segments.

"So the first 3k of the race it's about getting into a good position, just doing the laps, focus on where my teammate Rachele Schulist is," she said.

"And then, 4 and 5k, I'm focusing on trying to build and maintain, and I tell myself encouraging things, and work through doubts in my mind.

"Honestly, sometimes I have to go back and remind myself of work I've done, confidence boosters that I've gained. I just have to go back to those places, sometimes, during races.

"And then the last thousand meters of the race, you just focus on getting to the finish line as fast as possible and being a miler. You're thinking about what you need to do to get to the line as quickly as possible."

O'Connor usually gets there pretty quickly.

Running 70 to 75 miles a week helps. So does the weight-lifting, general strength exercises, sessions with the medicine ball and hurdle mobility drills.

"There's no question that there's a great inner drive," Drenth said, of his national star.

"But I think she's been successful because the success of the team is really important to her. From our standpoint, we talk about this routinely: You get better when you help people around you get better.

"I think that's something Leah's embraced. I think that something the whole team has embraced."

When Drenth recruited her out of Croswell-Lexington High School, in Croswell — on Lake Huron, in The Thumb — the track and cross-country coach of more than 30 years knew he had found something.

"We thought she was raw and would take time to develop, but there was no question in our mind that if our vision of her was correct, there was going to be some success," he said.

"There's no way to predict you're going to have a multiple-time Big Ten champion and a national champion when you see someone as a high school student, but you know that they're going to do well. As to what their ceiling is, you know that there's a lot of things that need to be done well in order for them to be what they can be."

O'Connor, with the help of both a large family and teammates so nurturing that it is as if they propel her stride, has accomplished those things.

"It's like my dad says, 'The hay's in the barn,' " O'Connor said of her father George, a star runner at Lexington High, as it was then known, and who likely would have made varsity at some college, had the responsibility of running the family farm not beckoned.

"The work is done."

Her mother, Janet, ran too, at Roseville High and Macomb Community College.

"I was an adequate high school runner," said her mother. "My husband was very good.

"I was a sprinter and hurdler and he did distance. So we joke the kids got the best of both of us."

The kids include four brothers and one sister. Brother George III is on the corss country and track & field teams at Oakland University. Sister Allison runs track and field at Central Michigan.

"We didn't encourage our kids to run," O'Connor said. "We encouraged them to do whatever they wanted to do.

"Leah played volleyball, basketball and then ran, and she found a champion's success in running. So I guess whatever your good at, you tend to gravitate to."

Her daughter has both the fortitude of a champion and a vigorous disposition, O'Connor said.

"So, am I surprised that she's at this level? Yes and no," she said.

"Who could have imagined her being the best in the nation and really one of the top in the world? You can't imagine that when you see your little kid running around.

"But I guess I'm not surprised either. She's gifted at running and very, very strong willed."

Especially with Drenth's approach, O'Connor is getting a big boost from her team, especially Schulist, a 19-year-old red-shirt sophomore.

"I think it's a partnership," said Schulist, who like O'Connor is first-team All Big-Ten this year.

"In practice, we both have weaknesses and we both have strengths. So, during workouts, she helps me and I help her."

Schulist finished third at the Big Ten Championships with a time of 19:54.40. She opened the season with a win at the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Sept. 5, with a personal-best time of 19:37.80 that lead the Spartans to a team win over second-ranked Oregon.

"Out there, on the cross country course, we'll find each other and talk to each other, and it's like, `OK, Leah. OK, Rachele. We can do it.' And it's so nice because sometimes out there you need someone to tell you, you can do it," Schulist said.

Like O'Connor, Schulist, 20, is from a running family. Her father, Martin, ran at Michigan State.

"I started in a baby jogger," she said. "I was just always around it. My family put me into all different sports, but my brother did cross country so I did it too.

"I just loved it."

All the love, team work, family and fine coaching may add up to a hugely significant victory for both O'Connor and the Spartans on Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"There's so much to love about running," O'Connor said. "I think running in a lot of ways has sculpted who I am.

"There are a lot of highs and lows. There are times, mind you, when I get so frustrated, I go to bed and I cry, because I'm not where I want to be. And I get so mad.

"But then running teaches you how to work through hardships and how to stay persistent when things are not what you want them to be, and keep a goal in mind, and fight for it, every day.

"It's a quiet sport. We don't get a lot of attention. But I don't think any distance runners are in the sport for the attention.

"But it's rewarding on those days when you get to go out and compete and see all your hard work come to fruition."

NCAA championships

When: Saturday. Women race at noon, followed by the men's race at 1 p.m.

Where: Wabash Valley Family Sports Center in Terre Haute, Indiana

TV: The championships will be shown on a live webcast on