Oct. 11, 2011
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa men's cross country program is in "RE" mode: rebuild, recreate, reload. So Larry Wieczorek -- in his 25th season as the head Hawkeye -- was more than a bit elated when he signed a reliable, record-breaking, home-grown recruit named Kevin Lewis from Ottumwa.
"We want to start with the Iowa athletes and go from there," Wieczorek said. "Getting the best in the state of Iowa is what we're striving for, and if I could get another one like (Lewis) I would take him in a minute."
There aren't many instate runners like Lewis. There aren't many first-year college runners like Lewis, period. As a senior in high school, he won the Class 4A individual state cross country title, broke a 38-year old record at the Drake Relays in the 3,200-meter run (9:05.58) and won the 3,200 and 1,600 runs at the state track and field meet.
To top it off, Lewis was class valedictorian and is pursuing a degree in engineering.
Lewis started running in elementary school with mile runs in gym class. Then he began competing in junior high. He was training year-round by the end of his freshman year in high school.
"I did pretty well in running, so I decided I wanted to take it seriously and see how good I could get with it," Lewis said. "I was pretty successful early and I kept improving as I worked harder."
An example of hard work paying off can be appreciated by his results as a high school junior compared to his outcomes as a senior. As a junior he was fourth at the state cross country meet, finishing behind two runners in his grade. At the state track meet he was second in the 1,600 and fourth in the 3,200. In a year's time, Lewis cut 38 seconds in the cross country 5K, 10 seconds in the 1,600 and 21 seconds in the 3,200. And he wasn't challenged in any of the three events.
"In running, you have to keep working to get faster," Lewis said. "You can't max out in running, so you improve yourself by getting faster and faster."
There are plenty of differences between high school and collegiate running, as Lewis can attest. The championship distance doubles in length from 5K to 10K. And of course, the competition is demanding. This is the first time in his running career that Lewis isn't the top finisher on his team.
"(Junior) Jeff (Thode) and (senior) Nick Holmes are faster than me on the team, so I look at them and try to keep running with them to get faster," Lewis said.
Thode was the individual winner at the Iowa Open 6K on Sept. 2, and 18 seconds behind was Lewis in 19:19.20. Two weeks later in a dual against Northern Iowa -- and with Thode sidelined -- Lewis was the meet winner in the 8K event in 25:31.70.
"He was chasing Jeff Thode, an All-American (in the opener) and he was going after him," Wieczorek said. "That's what you want to see. He does have a good gauge there; he has an All-American to train with in practice and he's not afraid to go after him."
Last season Thode was 30th at the NCAA cross country championships, becoming the school's first All-American since Stetson Steele in 1998.
For Lewis, the first competition away from the friendly surroundings of the Ashton Cross Country Course came on Sept. 24 at the Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis. He trimmed more than five seconds off his 8K best time, but he finished 79th out of 220 competitors. Holmes was the leading Hawkeye in 20th place.
"I learned that I need to go out a little faster," Lewis said. "I went out pretty fast for what I normally do, but I was way back in the pack, so I had to keep passing people throughout the race. I wasn't racing where I should have been, so the next race I'll have to get out a lot faster and hang on to that fast pack."
Lewis chalked it up as a rookie mistake in his first "real big DI race."
Not only was it the largest college meet Lewis has attended, but it was also just the third time he has competed outside the state of Iowa. A year ago he was running in Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant and Waukee; now he will race in Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois and Indiana.
Lewis isn't the only native Iowan on the Hawkeye roster. The others are junior Nick Young of Bettendorf, sophomore Sam Chaney of Columbus Junction and freshmen Evan Selsor of Winterset and Ben Witt of Burlington.
"There are a lot of us from Iowa schools, so it's all good," Lewis said. "Everything in Iowa is about the Hawkeyes."
Lewis trains 75 miles per week with a long run of 15 miles. He ultimately wants to increase that total to 90 per week.
"I know that eventually I'll have to be the main leader on the team and I have to keep improving myself and bring some of the other freshmen with," Lewis said.
By the time the Big Ten Conference championship is contested Oct. 30, Lewis wants to break 25 minutes in an 8K. He wants to better his previous best 10K time at the Midwest Regional on Nov. 12.
"Kevin has this love of what he's doing and this hunger to succeed," Wieczorek said. "He's driven in a good way to succeed in athletics. You can tell that running is very important to this kid. He doesn't say much and he's kind of quiet, but he's the kind of kid you want in any athletic program at the University of Iowa and I mean that sincerely."
During track, Lewis thinks his strength will be at 5,000 meters, but he doesn't want to give up on the 1,500 and mile.
"Hopefully I can also try the (3,000-meter) steeplechase and see how that goes," Lewis said.
The Hawkeyes return to action Friday, Oct. 14, at the Panorama Farms Invitational in Charlottesville, Va.