The course might change over the years, but the destination always remains the same for the Keene State men's cross country team - the NCAA Championships. So it wasn't hard to figure out what the Owls had on their mind as they laced up their running shoes to begin their 1985 season.
"We finished sixth at the nationals the year before so we knew we could have a good season," said Peter Thomas, Keene State's long-time coach.
Keene State has always been noted for producing top cross country teams, and 1985 was no exception. With two All-Americans back, Tom Anderson and Rod Ellsworth, two improving sophomores, Scott Clark and Chris Moulton, seasoned veterans like Mike Casner and Steve Fortier, and a fine recruiting class that included Scott Hatch, Rod Viens, and Chris Maitner, the Owls had all intentions of returning to the Championships, which would be held at East Stroudsburg, Pa,
With Ellsworth leading the way, the Owls began their race to Pennsylvania in fine fashion with a victory at Dartmouth. However, KSC would soon find out the course to the NCAA can be filled with peaks and valleys. Late in September, the Owls lost Anderson, the team's top finisher at the '84 championships, with a foot injury. According to Thomas, it was a turning point of the season. "I think everyone became more determined and realized that they had to bear down harder," he said.
Rallying together, the Owls improved every meet. After impressive performances at the Codfish, Lehigh, and Eastern invitationals, KSC finished fifth at the New Englands, setting the stage for the national qualifier race.
With an unusually strong regional field, the Owls knew they couldn't run away and hide from the competition. Led by Ellsworth (4th), Moulton (7th), and Hatch, who would go from 31st to 19th place in the last half mile, the Owls took care of business, finishing third and earning a return trip to East Stroudsburg for the nationals two weeks later.
Although concerned about Ellsworth, who had been sick earlier in the week, the Owls headed back down to Pennsylvania with a good deal of confidence. "I told them they were a top-five team and they could win it all," said Thomas.
The Owls would not disappoint their coach. Running what teammate Scott Hatch would call "the race of his life," Moulton would not only pace the Owls with a sixth-place finish, but become the first American to cross the line.
A staggering Ellsworth, who was showing the effects of his illness, and Clark would soon follow. "I saw him up ahead and he looked like he was going sideways," explained Clark. "As I got closer to the line, I slammed into him and he dragged me through the chute."
As it turned out, the collision prevented Scott's number from being recorded in the chute. Fortunately, the finish was recorded on videotape, and, after a few anxious moments and a protest by Thomas, the Owls would officially be awarded third place - the best finish ever by a Keene State team.
While there would be future trips to the nationals for the Owls, Thomas and his runners can look back at the 1985 season with a good deal of satisfaction. "I know I killed myself to do my part that season because I knew the rest of the guys were doing the same," said Clark, who along with Moulton and Ellsworth earned All-America honors. "We all had the same goal,"
"They all made the sacrifices needed to overachieve," added Thomas, "It was a special team."