When Darren Gauson first took over the Bradley Cross Country and Track Program in 2015, it was in a much different place than it is now.
The women’s team had just won the Missouri Valley Conference Cross Country Championship, and the men matched their best finish in school history at the championship in third place. The teams combined to send five runners to the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
But as odd as it sounds for a program that has had enormous success recently, that was really it.
The men’s team was solid, but they weren’t filling headlines with feats of personal and school records being broken. The women’s team was strong in conference but did not have a national presence.
In Gauson’s fourth year with the program, the men won the MVC and placed second in the regional meet, guaranteeing the team a spot at NCAA Cross Country Championships. The women won the MVC as well, though they finished ninth at the NCAA Regional meet and did not earn a spot at the championships.
Regardless, it was newfound success. 2019 was the culmination of Gauson’s gauntlet to build the program from minute to a nationally recognized name.
The men were ranked as high as 24th in the country. They even generated enough attention to get covered by the national running news website FloTrack.
One Brave covered in that story was senior Michael Ward, one of Bradley’s top runners.
Ward, a native of Cardiff, South Wales, Great Britain, was at the helm of Bradley’s past four years of success on the course.
But when he first came to Bradley, success was far from a given.
“We had a lot of guys with big aspirations, but the belief was lacking,” Ward said. “Now that we have [performed well at the highest level] it is easier for the younger guys to buy into the program.”
Ward said, as a graduating senior, he feels an obligation to help the incoming freshmen.
“I like to speak with the new guys one-on-one,” Ward said. “I want to make sure they have someone they can speak to and feel safe with if they need to talk about anything, running or not.”
The belief of a winning mentality that was once lacking became contagious. Redshirt freshman Jack Franklin echoed Ward’s belief as proof of the influence.
“Since I stepped foot on campus we’ve been preparing to become a national caliber program,” Franklin said.
It’s the course a successful program thrives on: from the first day of an incoming freshman’s career, winning is a part of the culture. Though that may have been a foreign concept to a young Ward and Gauson, being competitive at races and winning seems to be the only habit they are in tune with nowadays.
Next year will be the first time Bradley will compete without the senior core of Ward, Haren Dunderdale and Will Anderson.
Even without a large part of the program, Franklin does not seem nervous.
“We have the mindset that we can be as good as we were last year,” Franklin said. “The mindset that we should have from now on is that we are a national caliber program and that should be the expectation every year. We got over the hump and now we can take the talent we already have in place, develop it and improve on the level we already were.” The Braves will send runners to three more meets this spring. This weekend the team splits up running at the Drake Relays and Kip Janvrin Open. They will end the season at the MVC Outdoor Championships May 10-12 at Indiana State