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Changes have track/cross country running in right direction

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Luis Orta started his senior season with a first-place finish in the Belmont Opener this weekend. (UK Athletics) Luis Orta started his senior season with a first-place finish in the Belmont Opener this weekend. (UK Athletics)
There is a bit of a buzz around the University of Kentucky's track and field/cross country program. Those around the athletic department see the sport as ready to take off under newly appointed head coach Edrick Floreal, but it won't happen overnight. Floreal and his staff have brought along a system from Stanford that many of his athletes are new to.

The athletes' bodies are taking a toll from the jumping and hurdle training Floreal and the staff are presenting to them but, overall, the athletes have responded positively to the adjustments.

In Floreal's first meet as the head coach, he saw his Wildcats take home second place in both the men's and women's races at the Belmont Opener in Nashville, Tenn.

Senior men's runner Luis Orta claimed first in the season opener for the third consecutive season. Although Orta's finish followed suit with his previous seasons, not everything went as planned.

"We didn't race with spikes," Orta said. "For me winning the race and for my teammates finishing so close to me without spikes was huge."

Wearing spikes is a different type of running for distance athletes and can cause their calves and legs to become sore if they have not trained long enough with them.

The decision to not wear spikes was surprising amongst the team but that did not hold them back from competing. Instead, they put all of their trust in the coaching staff.

"Yeah I kind of opposed it at first because when I race I want to win and I don't want to give my opponents an advantage," Orta said. "Coach told me everything will be all right and there will be a time for that. I said, 'Okay coach I'll do whatever you tell me to do.'

"The first two miles I thought about it and didn't feel that fast but then in the last mile it didn't matter and I think I can race like that any day. I felt super strong in the end."

Compared to what the team has gone through in the offseason, the spikes were a minor change in the system the coaching staff has presented.

Perhaps the biggest change the cross country team has experienced is the amount of miles run in training. The team has upped their total miles from 50 to over 80 a week. Another addition to the coaching transition has been the exercises aimed to strengthen each runner's body. The team has worked a lot on their core, upper body and legs, including push-ups and abs workouts.

The reactions to the adjustments are seemingly unanimous. The players and coaching staff agree it will take time before they see great results but sense positive signs they are headed in the right direction.

"I think for them it's just getting used to the way I do things," Floreal said. "I think everything has been positive so far. We are excited about the way things are going with the changes and I think the team is excited about doing more together as a team.

"I think there is a good foundation that Don Weber put together and now we are taking the baton and building the rest of the house. We've got a basement and now we've got to build a first, second, and third floor and sometimes it's a little more difficult but nonetheless it's the challenge we have at hand."

The squad is not set to race again until Sept. 22, when they travel to Charlottesville, Va.,  for the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational. Assistant coach Jason Dunn works with the male distance runners, while assistant Hakon DeVries is in charge of the females.

Dunn and DeVries came to UK with Floreal and experienced their first meet this past weekend in Nashville. With the race being the first of the year, Dunn knew the team wouldn't be flawless, but he did like what he saw.

"It was exciting to have the first meet for me in Kentucky blue," Dunn said. "We know we've got a lot of work and training to do so we didn't expect to be at the top of our game by any stretch, but it was encouraging to see where some of the guys are at. It was nice to see Luis win the race and it was a good start to the season."

Orta won the heat with a time of 15:16.70. The Caracas, Venezuela native was a first team All-Southeastern Conference selection and garnered three SEC Runner of the Week accolades in 2011.

Orta has been a committed runner for UK since his freshman season and continues to show leadership and determination even through the transitions over the summer. He constantly wants to get better and will do whatever it takes to help himself and the team improve.

"He's going to have to be a guy for the entire team that people can look at and say that's the model that is needed to be successful at UK," Floreal said. "He's a unique and special kid that accepts the demands from the coaching staff and understands the expectations and leadership that is going to be put on him. He's willing to do whatever it takes to become the best athlete he can possibly be and set an example for the rest of the team."

The season is young, and a second place finish at the Belmont Opener is a teaser for what this program could offer to UK Athletics this year and in years to come. The coaches are sticking with the same philosophy they have always believed in and have the players buying in on the process.

One of the biggest hiccups is trying to change the habits that have been instilled in the athletes. Weber was a very successful coach and accomplished many great things at UK, producing numerous NCAA and SEC champions. That time is over and Floreal is bringing a new era to the program.

"It's going to take time because you cannot make a change so drastic that quickly," Orta said. "Everyone is happy with the new coaches because we know they are great coaches and it reflects from the training. I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my four years at Kentucky and the team is excited about the change."

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