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The Rise of the Lynchburg Hornets


Special thanks to alumni Shawn Gmurek and Reid Sharkey, as well as current athletes Sam Llaneza, Frank Csorba and Brennan Straits for offering their insight to TSR for this piece.

 

Who would’ve thought?


That a school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains would be capable of producing national-level times on par with the marks that the blue blood programs crank out every year?


Historically speaking, Lynchburg is known more for their lacrosse team than any other sport. However, they did qualify their men's cross country squad to the national meet during the fall of 2012. But since then, success has been elusive.


And maybe that's why this "new wave" of talent coming from this Lynchburg program feels so impactful. Maybe that's why today's team feels like they have started a new chapter in the history of Lynchburg's distance program. They have, after all, already seen two of their runners compete at the national meet for cross country and are anticipating a few others to make an appearance at the NCAA Outdoor Championships later this month.

This team now boasts athletes who have nationally ranked times ranging from the 800 to the 10k. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Coach Jake Reed watched as his team rattled off times that were once considered rare for this distance program. On that day, Sam Llaneza posted the school’s second-fastest 1500 meter time while his teammates Max Sparks and Frank Csorba nailed the school’s third and fourth all-time marks in the 5000 meters.


Simply put, this team is now in a dramatically better place than they were just a few years ago.

But to fully understand how Lynchburg has arrived to this new and exciting level of competitiveness, we have to take you back to the year 2017, the year when Coach Reed was promoted to the head cross country / distance coach of the Hornets.


* * *


The newest leader of Lynchburg's distance group had a vision, and a long-term vision at that: Make the men in red and grey a distance-oriented juggernaught And why not? After all, nearby rival Washington & Lee was a distance-heavy D3 stalwart and was finding massive success in their own right. Why couldn't Lynchburg do the same?

However, in order to be a strong program that matched this grand vision, Reed needed kids who were willing to buy into what he was trying to preach. His coaching tactics emphasized open communication between him and his athletes. He wanted to hear if they thought the training was working while accepting potential tweaks or training aspects that could be changed.


His ideal recruits were people who were committed to the craft, but were also upstanding people in the classroom. He was looking for the right kids with the right beliefs for his program, not just those were focused on individual success when they laced up their spikes.

At first, Coach Reed didn’t have many takers, although he did find two possible candidates in Reid Sharkey and Shawn Gmurek; two youngsters who were part of his first recruiting class.

Then there was Tristan Lucy-Spiedel, a distance talent who was a year older than Sharkey and Gmurek, who seemed to be hanging with that youthful duo in workouts. Maybe, he could join Sharkey and Gmurek in making a “big three” of sorts.

Neither Gmurek, Sharkey nor Lucy-Spiedel came in with crazy-fast high school marks. In fact, none of them had broken two minutes in the 800 meters or 4:30 in the 1600 meters. They would be “projects” in Coach Reed’s eyes, but with the right training, they could one day be national qualifying hopefuls.

Admittedly, things were not going smoothly midway through the 2018 indoor season. Neither Gmurek nor Sharkey had truly run the way that Coach Reed knew they could. They had both finally broken two minutes in the 800, and Sharkey flashed some potential in the 1500 by running 4:02, but Gmurek was still missing the mark.


Gmurek recalls a conversation with Coach Reed and volunteer coach Coach Litz. Their discussion centered around three things in particular: training, mentality and the team.


When it came to the training, Gmurek stubbornly campaigned that he knew how coordinate and approach training for middle distance athletes...even though he had never coached anyone in his life. Naturally, debates and arguments between himself Coach Reed were apparent when it came to workouts. If Shawn didn’t believe in the workout, he wasn’t going to give his all.


“You have some talent, but your ego is getting in the way of what we are trying to build here" is what Gmurek recalls Coach Litz explaining to him.


Coach Reed didn't let up.


“Either do the workouts we assign like everyone else or get out.”

* * *


It was at that point when Gmurek truly understood that those facets were, in fact, the causes of his struggles. If he could fix them, then the sky was the limit.


After some serious self-reflection, the promising youngster became fully invested in the program with the understanding that he was going to change his mentality to be a “team first” kind of guy, running the prescribed the workout that his coaching staff had outlined for him.

The decision for Gmurek to stay the course, as well as the constant hard work exhibited by Sharkey and Lucy-Spiedel, was eventually put on full display, most notably at the 2018 ODAC Outdoor Championships where each finished as the respective runner-up finishers in their events.


Gmurek ran 1:56 in the 800 meters to place 2nd overall, Lucy-Spiedel took silver in the 3k steeplechase (as well as bronze in the 5000 meters) and Sharkey lowered his personal best that year by a second, earning a mark of 4:01 in the 1500 meters.


But that year? Well, the Hornets were more than a team made up of just Gmurek, Lucy-Spiedel and Sharkey. In fact, Lynchburg took home three of the top-four spots in the 800 meters, went 2-4-6 in the 1500 meters and placed 3rd and 7th in the 5000 meters.


Slowly but surely, things were coming together and the emphasis on team cohesion was yielding results, not just from the "big three", but from numerous others on the team.

And soon the program would take another step forward in its rise to prominence. As the semester came to a close, Coach Reed really emphasized a summer filled with miles, knowing that he had a promising freshman in Max Sparks who would be ready to dominate on the grass.

The 2018 cross country season came with so much promise. At the Inter Region Border Battle hosted by Rowan University, every Hornet who scored broke 27 minutes for the 8k distance, a feat that showed the true depth of the program.


Things were starting to click...and yet, even with everyone seemingly bought in, the Hornets still finished as the ODAC runner-ups despite eventually improving three spots in their region to take 6th place overall. It just seemed like they were a year away from Coach Reed’s “ideal” lineup, although that didn’t stop Lucy-Spiedel or Sparks from punching their tickets to the national meet.


A substantial amount of progress had been made, but to get to where Coach Reed knew they could be, a lot more had to be done.


But their momentum? Well, it was very real and it was very much growing...


As the team transitioned to the indoor oval, we saw many of the same characters in Tristan Lucy-Spiedel, Max Sparks, Reid Sharkey and Shawn Gmurek enjoy the same success that they had recently experienced on the grass and the oval. At the ODAC meet, Gmurek was the runner-up in the 800 yet again while Sharkey took home his first ODAC title in the mile.


Sharkey, Sparks and Lucy-Spiedel took 2nd, 3rd and 5th place in the 3000 meters while Lucy-Spiedel and Sparks doubled back to finish 2nd and 4th in the 5000 meters, respectively.


While it did seem like the Hornets were slowly taking over the distance events of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, their depth outside of those four men seemed to be growing thin.


In other words, it was time to find new blood.


* * *

Frank Csorba was an in-state product from nearby Bluestone High School. He was a promising young recruit and someone who Coach Reed spoke to about the culture of the Lynchburg team that he was working to instill.

Reed explained that he had a few takers in Gmurek, Sharkey, Sparks and Lucy-Speidel. However, what stood out to Csorba wasn't just Reed’s obvious goal of producing top distance talents, but it was also his emphasis on ensuring that his athletes were going to be successful outside of running.


Reed emphasized that his team could talk with him about anything.


The door was always open.


This, however, wasn’t what Csorba was used to. According to him, he never had a coach be so open and willing to lay down their personal agenda for an athlete -- and that turned out to be a winning factor in his recruitment. In fact, the Virginia native decided that he wasn’t going to look anywhere else. He committed to Lynchburg the following day.

The next new piece to join the Hornets' roster was Sam Llaneza, a winter transfer from Wilmington University. Llaneza wasn't entirely happy during his only semester with the Wildcats and instead opted to look elsewhere in an attempt to find a more team-oriented program.

And given how well the Hornets were running as a team, that likely made Llaneza's decision a bit easier.


The 2019 cross country season resulted in Lynchburg finishing runner-up to Washington & Lee yet again, although the difference this time around was that they lost by only eight points. In years past, the title was never close.


W&L had won by 33 points in 2018, 58 points in 2017 and 31 points in 2016. The margin between the Generals and Hornets was getting noticeably smaller, a major achievement when you consider how strong Washington & Lee has been as a distance program over the years.


Fast forward to a regional race that Lynchburg would’ve loved to have back, the Hornets secured a 4th place finish in the Southeast region, coming ever-so-close to qualifying for the national meet as a team.


Despite the narrow miss, their growth as a team was evident -- something that Llaneza was looking for. It was ultimately an easy call for the former Wildcat after he saw the pieces that were slowly falling into place for the Lynchburg men. As a result, he joined the track and field team in the winter of 2019-2020.

However, that 2019 ODAC cross country race turned out to be more than a promising result which ultimately landed a transfer. In fact, that meet proved to be a breakout race for the entire Lynchburg team as the depth of the Hornets truly began to flourish.

That 2019 ODAC meet was sophomore Brennan Straits’ best performance in a Hornet singlet. He was the last one to complete Coach Reed’s group of up-and-coming runners which featured Csorba and Llaneza.


Until that point, he hadn't found much success, often finishing well outside the top-five on his team. The 2019 ODAC XC Championships, however, were different. In that race, he was the fourth runner across the line for the Lynchburg men and earned second-team All-ODAC honors.

Straits recalls the feeling he had when he heard that the Generals had won by a mere eight points, “It felt like we couldn’t have run any better with those guys I toed the line with. However, if we were to get a transfer or someone else to step up, then we’d be ODAC champs next year for sure, no doubt”.


* * *

Jump to the 2020 indoor season where both Gmurek and Sharkey were on the verge of earning national qualifying times in the 800 and 3000 meters, respectively. They headed to Wittenberg College to chase fast times at the track known as “The Steemer”, hoping to leave Ohio with two national qualifiers in hand.


It would be extra special if they qualified on their former coach’s indoor track. Coach Litz left Lynchburg in 2019 after the outdoor track season to take the head job for cross country at Whittenberg.

Now, here they were, trying to make it to the NCAA Championships on the track of their former assistant coach. In the end, Gmurek and Sharkey left with two personal bests, but didn’t run fast enough to be considered for the national meet.

The ensuing response from their teammates is what really stuck out to both Shawn and Reid as they returned back to campus. The team was steadfast in consoling them the day after the race, but Coach Reed had a different mentality.


“Your seasons aren’t over. You’ve still got the ODAC Championships to win.”


And win they did.

The ODAC Championships marked yet another milestone in the ongoing rise of this Lynchburg program. The Hornets took home the gold in the 800 meters, the mile, the 3000 meters and the 5000 meters.


Gmurek won his first indoor ODAC title in the 800 meters with up-and-comer Llaneza taking 3rd place. Sharkey won his second-straight ODAC title in the mile with Gmurek and Lucy-Spiedel rounding out the top-three. Sharkey and Lucy Spiedel went 1-2 in the 3000 meters while Lucy-Spiedlel took secured gold in the 5000 meters.


It didn't happen overnight, but that 2020 indoor conference meet was what Coach Reed had truly envisioned when he took the reins as head coach: total domination. Yes, the Hornets didn’t have anyone going to the national meet, but he was content to take it one step at a time. That mass collection of gold medals was still a very nice prize.

However, just when the team's momentum had reached its peak, they were forced to a halt.

The pandemic had hit.

* * *


The seniors and aptly named “big three” (Gmurek, Sharkey, and Lucy-Spiedel) were devastated. No more chances to compete at a national meet, no more team long-runs or no more chances to rack up ODAC titles.


All of it was gone in an instant.


The sudden stoppage of competition and the dramatic end to the college careers of the long-time veterans who helped shaped the program was a massive hit to the Lynchburg men. The team that had risen to national prominence had Gmurek, Sharkey and Lucy-Spiedel to thank for leading the way.


Yet, in a way, maybe this was a sign that the Hornets were ready for life after their "big three". It may have come sooner than expected, but if any team was going to be prepared for a rebound after the pandemic, it was going to be Lynchburg.


In fact, this led to Csorba, Llaneza and Straits to campaign for a summer of training at altitude.


“Guys, I think this is our chance to finally show everyone what we’re made of,” said Llaneza. Csorba agreed. The chance to train at altitude during the summer months would certainly elevate this team to the next level. However, the real question for the rest of the team would be: were they in or out?

The answer? It would be a team affair.


Six other Hornets, in addition to Csorba, Llaneza and Straits, made the trek to Flagstaff, Arizona for two months of the summer. They took this time to get everyone on the same page as they agreed that the trip was to accomplish two goals. The first being to live like a pro runner. The second being to get the most out of their training in the thin air.

“Even though we weren’t going to compete in the fall, we were still juiced to be able to continue to train together. We knew that once we could compete, we would surprise a bunch of people,” Llaneza told The Stride Report.

With the cross country season essentially gone and the indoor track season acting more as more of a springboard for outdoor track, it admittedly took a while for the Lynchburg men to showoff their newfound fitness.


But the wait proved to be well worth it.


* * *


In their first meet of the outdoor track season, a home invitational on the same weekend that the NCAA Indoor Championships would've been, the Hornet's showed out. Csorba doubled in the 1500 and 5k, running 3:55 and 14:53 while Sparks and Llaneza ran 14:38 and 14:52, respectively.


In just that meet alone, Lynchburg had three guys under 15 minutes. And let's not to forget about Jonathan Cobb and Brennan Straits who both ran just under 15:15. That gave the Hornets a solid five runners under 15:15, a development of depth that matched some of the better D3 programs in the entire NCAA.

Frank Csorba put it best. “After that first home meet of the year...I just knew that we had finally arrived”.

The team was firing on all cylinders which made their performances at the Colonial Relays, hosted by William & Mary, less of a surprise. Csorba went on to set the school record in the 10k, running a huge mark of 29:37, which was good for NCAA #3 at the time of publication.


We also saw Llaneza emerge as one of the best middle distance runners in Division III, doubling in the 800 and 1500 with times of 1:52 and 3:54. Not only that, but Sparks, Cobb and Straits took the 5k head-on, finishing with marks of 14:39, 14:54, and 14:55, respectively.


On paper, it was a massively successful weekend for the Lynchburg men who had displayed a level of firepower, range and depth which allowed them to be competitive with many of the NCAA's better distance programs. The real test, however, was seeing if they could finally win an ODAC team title -- a goal that Coach Reed had set out to accomplish from the beginning of his head coaching tenure.

Knowing it was going to take everyone’s best to win the ODAC title, Coach Reed sat the team down and encouraged them to think about two memories from their Lynchburg careers: One from when they first joined the program and one from this past week. He did that to show them the progress they had made along their journey and to give them confidence.

“If we race like we know we are capable of, then we’ll be in a good spot” Coach Reed explained.

And he was exactly right.

At the 2021 ODAC Outdoor Championships, the Hornets went 1-2-3 in the 5000 meters with Sparks taking the win and Csorba and Straits taking the silver and bronze medals, respectively. In the 10k, it was the reverse, as Csorba took the victory while Sparks earned silver. Llaneza was another big point-scorer, winning the 800 meters and taking 2nd place in the 1500 meters, earning 18 points for the team.


The distance squad racked up enough points to give them a lead, and the field events eventually sealed the deal.

Lynchburg had finally done it.


The Hornets were your 2021 Men’s ODAC Outdoor Track & Field team champions.


With the national meet still on the horizon, the most talented Lynchburg distance runners still have plenty to prove. Still, this wasn't a position that many D3 fans would have expected the Hornets to be in a few years ago. What was once a quiet and unexciting program has since been revitalized as a producer of top distance talent.


And it doesn't look like that will end anytime soon.

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