East Xtra: Greensburg CC cross country follows an unusual course

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Greensburg Central Catholic has been building up its cross country program using its coach's unusual background and its runners' team mentality.

The building started when Lou Rocco was offered the position of head coach in July.

Rocco had never coached, competed in or had any experience with cross country before receiving the job offer. A personal trainer, Rocco was in Lake Placid competing in an "Iron Man" triathlon competition when he received an email from Greensburg Central Catholic athletic director Dan Mahoney.

"A friend recommended me to [Mahoney]," said Rocco. "We had no previous relationship."

Rocco described the job offer as extremely "out of the blue."

"I had never run cross country," he said.

He noted, however, that he had competed in long-distance runs of 35 and 52 miles.

Rocco may have been new to cross country, but the one thing he knew about it was how to get athletes to run faster. After accepting the job as coach of both the boys and girls teams, he did some Google research on cross country. Rocco found out that many cross country training schedules are not very different from his own training schedule for marathons.

The next step was instituting a preseason training camp.

"Camp was voluntary for about two weeks before training season," said Rocco. "There were only a handful of athletes who showed up, but I still wanted to apply my own spin on the cross country techniques."

Rocco immediately implemented strength training and conditioning, as well as core work (which consists of a lot of abdominal exercise and different types of pushups).

Rocco's intensive training did not stop with the jumps. Greensburg Central Catholic runners were also presented with yoga, interval training, bleacher training, suicide drills and "aggression drills." Aggression drills involve situations where two or more people must race and find ways to pass each other.

The Greensburg Central Catholic runners stayed with Rocco's unusual methods. The result was drastic decreases in 5,000-meter times across the board.

"The girls dropped an average of seven minutes and 13 seconds off their 5K times," said Rocco.

Rocco said for the boys, the average 5K time decrease was five minutes and 30 seconds.

"Our slowest runner, his first 5K time was 37:45," said Rocco. By Sept. 25, the same runner had dropped his time to 29:15.

Although Rocco's training techniques were getting Greensburg Central Catholic's runners into shape, they left out one aspect -- strategy.

"I told these guys, 'I don't know anything about how cross country is scored. I don't know how the meets are set up.' And I rely on information the seniors give me," Rocco said.

Among the students who act as Rocco's cross country advisors, Phil Forsythe was cited by Rocco as a key example.

"These seniors are almost like my assistants," said Rocco,

As the Centurions' team combined its knowledge of how to run a cross country meet with Rocco's tough conditioning, successes began to emerge.

A couple weeks ago, the Centurions played host to Kittanning and a long-dominant Freeport team. The Centurions couldn't beat the Yellowjackets, but both GCC's boys and girls teams closed out Kittanning, 26-31.

He had trained the Centurions to get stronger and faster as they ran, so it was Kittanning that got out in front early. This happened in both the boys and girls races.

But the Wildcats wore down. Greensburg's Rosalyn Tan and Michelle Karavin led the Centurions in the girls race (with times of 23:26 and 23:45, respectively). Matt Osche and Phil Forsythe led Greensburg CC against Kittanning. Osche's and Forsythe's times were 18:42 and 18:44, respectively.

Rocco summarized Greensburg Central's progress by noting that it comes from a combination of efforts.

"We actually all work together as a team," he said. "There's no real team leader -- everybody works together. It's a really cohesive unit."

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