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Local runners are left with sole searching

July 09, 2003|by ANDREW MASON

andrewm@herald-mail.com

Tim Mason and Erik Bennett are in a precarious situation.

Both area student-athletes have one full year of NCAA eligibility remaining and more course requirements to fulfill for their college degrees. Yet, at this point, neither has a school to call home.

Home was supposed to be West Virginia University, where Mason, a 1998 Clear Spring High School graduate, and Bennett, a 1999 Chambersburg grad, were roommates and teammates on the Mountaineers' cross country and track teams.

But their dream of leading WVU to a team berth at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships this fall vanished when their team did.

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In April, the school reduced its number of varsity team sports from 21 to 16 for economic reasons. Gone were men's cross country, indoor and outdoor track, as well as the rifle and men's tennis teams, beginning with the 2003-04 school year.

"It was a huge blow. That's why I chose West Virginia, because of running," said Bennett, the Mountaineers' top runner in 2001, who redshirted last year in anticipation of this one. "Our cross country team was going to be pretty good this year. We thought we could make it to nationals. All of my redshirts were planned.

"Now it's like, 'Why did I come here?'"

Mason - a six-time Maryland state champion for the Blazers and national junior college champ at 5,000 meters indoors for Hagerstown Community College - also went to WVU to further his running career.

"To see the hours of sweat we poured into it ... all the effort ... and to hear that the program that you really wanted to be at was dropped," Mason said, "I was just appalled."

While Bennett and Mason both have the option to stay at WVU and continue receiving their athletic scholarships as they finish their degrees, neither said that's a desirable choice.

As much as they like the school and their friends there, they need to run - somewhere.

"I've put in too many miles," said Mason, who plans to hit the Division II scene in the West Virginia Conference this fall, either at West Virginia Wesleyan or Wheeling Jesuit.

Bennett is not as certain about his immediate future. He'd like to stay in Division I and is currently anticipating offers from Florida State, Eastern Michigan and Clemson.

But, if none of those schools pans out, he hasn't completely ruled out the idea of staying close to home and competing at Shippensburg University, a Division II school.

Bennett said the decision basically will come down to how many of his course credits from WVU will transfer and how much scholarship money is offered.

"I'm just hoping for the best right now," Bennett said. "I'm still trying to find a school to transfer to for a year, and I'm training like I'm going to have a cross country season for another school.

"Individually, I should be able to make nationals wherever I go. But I'd like to go to a school where the whole team has a chance."

Fortunately for Bennett and Mason, running is a sport where individual talent can supersede the team's.

"Both (West Virginia Wesleyan and Wheeling Jesuit) programs are very good," Mason said. "Hopefully, I can go to one of them and make the team a little better.

"My biggest goal is to get to the show - NCAA Division II nationals. That's what we all train for. It's our World Series ... to be coming down the final straightaway, fighting for an All-American spot."

The Mountaineers may never know what they missed.

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