Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Big thanks to Zach Long for talking to The Stride Report! Twitter: @Zach_Long235
It's not uncommon to hear about a big name in the running community switching programs.
New opportunities in the NCAA such as the transfer portal have given student-athletes a new sense of freedom to put themselves in better situations that benefit them both athletically and academically.
Of course, this trend isn’t limited only to collegiate sports. In fact, the idea of player freedom and mobility likely stemmed from many professional sports leagues. Nowhere is this more evident than in the NBA where players, starting with LeBron James and hitting its peak with Kevin Durant, have seemingly dismissed franchise commitment as an ancient afterthought. This attitude of indifference towards institutions such as schools and franchises is often a point of contention, but it is hard to argue that it hasn’t been advantageous for many athletes.
In the running community, we have seen how beneficial transferring to Iowa State has been for Edwin Kurgat as he has become a national contender individually while helping Iowa State earn back-to-back 7th place finishes at the Cross Country National Championships. The same could be said for the recent moves we saw this past summer between Oregon and Washington. The examples go on...
Although it is clear that there are many advantages to the increased player movement in professional sports, as well as the NCAA, I can't help but be a sucker for those who have been loyal since day one.
And that's where Tennessee's Zach Long comes in.
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The senior from Rutledge, Tennessee grew up as a lifelong Volunteer fan. “It was always a dream of mine to be an athlete at Tennessee” Long told TSR, and his passion for the Volunteers is evident. During Tennessee’s run through March Madness, Zach reported that the track team stopped their flight from taking off because they "needed to watch the rest of Tennessee’s game" against Iowa as it went into overtime. For anyone who lives in Knoxville, this isn't surprising. After all, there aren’t many fanbases who could stop their university from hiring a head coach even after he signed a contract (yes, that actually happened).
For Long, cross country wasn’t the sport he was supposed to play at Tennessee. During middle school baseball conditioning, the track coach saw him dusting his teammates in mile repeats and suggested that he come out for the track team. He ran a few meets, but was still interested in playing other sports. To make sure he was in shape to play basketball his freshmen year of high school, Long signed up for the cross country team.
However, basketball was no longer in the picture after he was All-State as a freshman and ran 16:30 in the 5k. Suddenly, Long and his family realized that this running thing could really be special. That said, giving up baseball, a sport he had played since he was five years old, wasn’t something he was willing to do just yet. For the rest of his high school career, Long delicately balanced playing baseball and running.
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This was the time track practice started for Zach while he was playing baseball. Not only was practice early, but he also had to hike over to Knoxville where he would meet his personal coach every morning. After track practice, it was back to school by nine o’clock and then to baseball practice in the afternoon. Yet, despite the heavy workload, Long was still able to run well enough every track season to receive interest from a variety of Division 1 schools...including Tennessee.
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Building a national caliber cross country team isn’t easy, but with Long and a solid class of freshmen, Tennessee was ready to start laying the foundation in 2015. Zach knew that building a contender would be a process for a team that finished 10th in the south region the year before while also losing their top runner. Even so, he trusted that the coaching staff would help him build a lineup that could challenge for a top two spot at regionals.
Long contributed to the team right away, leading the Vols in cross country during his freshman and sophomore years. However, it wasn't until the 2017 SEC Outdoor Championships where he had his breakout race.
After just missing out on making the 1500 meter final, Long entered the 5k hoping to score a few points for the team. Instead, the Volunteer got into rhythm and finished 4th overall, running a stunning 13:54 which lowered his PR by almost a full minute. After just missing out on a regional qualifying time in the 1500, Long was suddenly headed to regionals in a distance he had run only twice in his collegiate career.
Naturally, no one could blame the inexperienced Tennessee ace who had never been on a stage that was so large and so competitive. However, inexperience, was not an issue. Instead, Long cruised to a 6th place finish and easily secured a spot to the National Championships.
Of course, the experience of going to Eugene can often be overwhelming, especially when you toe the line next to the nation's best. "I was racing the big boys like Justyn Knight and Grant Fisher" Long told TSR. "It's one of the most intimidating tracks in the country”.
In just the fourth 5000 meter race of his collegiate career, Long finished 12th overall and earned Second Team All-American honors. No longer an underclassman with lots of potential, Long was now a national contender.
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Tennessee’s cross country program, on the other hand, was not quite at the same level. In Long’s first two years, the Volunteers finished 9th and 10th at regionals. It would have been easy for Long to look across the street and think that the grass is greener on the other side, but this was never a thought that entered his mind. Instead, Long stayed loyal to the school that he loves and worked to push the Volunteers to newer and higher heights.
Long didn’t just stick around Knoxville and focus on his individual goals. A team captain since his sophomore year, the Tennessee low-stick has worked to foster team unity and set ambitious team goals. The team’s group chat was renamed Road to Madison as soon as the 2017 cross season was over. The men in orange believed this was the year to put Tennessee’s cross country team back on the map. After a strong showing in 2017 that saw the Vols improve to 5th in the region, it was hard to fault them for their enthusiasm. Plus, they returned their entire top five and had a handful of talented recruits on the way.
The 2018 regional meet was the culmination of all of Tennessee's hard work. The Volunteers were ranked #2 in the South Region and in prime position to make it back to Nationals. Long ran a fantastic race, finishing 2nd to Alabama’s Alfred Chelanga. In a tight race that went down to the last mile, Tennessee battled with Florida State for the final automatic bid.
Ultimately, the Seminoles were able to keep their lead over the Volunteers to earn a spot to Nationals. While Long earned an at-large bid to NCAA's, his team came up one spot short. A bittersweet moment certainly, but one that showed just how far this team had come. After a 10th place finish at regionals just a few years prior, the Volunteers had raised the bar high enough to a point where a 3rd place regional finish was somehow (but understandably) disappointing.
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With Long graduating at the end of the year, Tennessee will certainly feel his loss in a big way, but they will be back contending for a spot at Nationals. Even though the Volunteers are losing their leader and best runner, they will still be a conference and regional contender thanks to the foundation built by their coaches, alumni, and current members of the team. In a region that is filled with so much uncertainty, the Vols will be able to lean on high-potential talents like Karl Thiessen, Alex Crigger, John Elrod, and Connor Hawkins. All of these men are underclassmen who have bright futures and will undoubtedly continue the success that Long has started.
With all this said, Long’s career is far from over. He recently ran 13:56 at the Stanford Invite and has his goals are set considerably higher this time around. Finishing as a First Team All-American in the 5k is the goal, and I find it hard to bet against him, especially when you remember that he owns a 13:39 personal best from 2018.
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Perhaps nostalgia isn’t always best, but it's easy to admire Zach Long’s old-school career which has emphasized the commitment and dedication towards building a program. Giving student-athletes more freedom to transfer is certainly valuable, but there is something satisfying about seeing the results of loyalty and blue collar growth.
Time will tell, but it seems like Tennessee is here to stay as contenders in a rapidly improving South region, and Zach Long’s contributions as a leader and a runner should be an example for future athletes.
And who knows? Maybe future basketball teams will stop planes to watch Zach race...