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Pilot runners get no respect

Oct. 7, 2008

The Portland Tribune

The headline in Sunday's daily read, "Ducks show why they're No. 1, sweep Dellinger Invitational."

Six paragraphs into the story, you learn that, while Oregon won the men's team title, the University of Portland had the top two individual finishers in the nine-team cross-country meet at Springfield. The meet featured the No. 1-ranked Ducks, fifth-ranked Alabama, the seventh-ranked Pilots and UCLA.

Such is life on the Bluff, where Rob Conner has put together an impressive distance-running program with a parcity of fanfare.

Over the past decade, the Pilots have finished among the top 15 at the NCAA cross-country meet five times, including seventh in 2001.

Nobody seems to notice, not with Oregon around.

The Ducks won the NCAA meet a year ago and, if Galen Rupp is aboard, are likely to repeat this season.

Yet Portland, working with a fraction of the budget of their in-state counterparts, has been competitive in recent years and, at times, has beaten the Ducks.

Still, the Pilots are the Rodney Dangerfield of men's cross country.

"I'm not saying we're going to win nationals or finish second, but we're running even up with (the Ducks)," Conner says in a rare moment of candor.

Of the lack of recognition of what the Pilots have accomplished: "It frustrates me."

Superior depth carried Oregon to the Dellinger Invitational team title with 49 points, seven ahead of Portland, with Alabama six points back in third place.

UP senior David Kinsella - the individual champion at the Dellinger meet - pauses when asked if the Oregon runners consider the Pilots rivals.

"No," he says, finally. "Look, unless something goes horribly wrong, (Oregon) will get first or second at nationals. Are we on the Ducks' radar? Uhhh ... no. At the same time, if they hold out Rupp (at the Dellinger Invitational), we're not going to sit back and say, `You guys can win.' "

Kinsella - who finished eighth at the NCAA cross-country meet a year ago - beat every runner UO coach Vin Lananna put out there last Saturday. So did newcomer Alfred Kipchumba, who placed second. Pilot junior Tommy Betterbed was sixth, finishing in front of all but two of the Duck runners.

It's not the first time that has happened with Conner, in his 19th year as UP's head coach for men's cross country and track and field.

"I feel we have not yet been out-coached, out-trained or out-raced, but we have been out-depthed," Conner says. "If you make Vin pick his top five runners two months ago, and tell him he can only coach those five, and he must keep them healthy and running fast ... it's an almost impossible task.

"He has 15 great runners. I have three, and I have to squeeze them for everything I can get."

Conner, 44, can't recruit the top in-state prep runners. They all go to Oregon. The Ducks have the big name, tradition and facilities, an avid running community in Eugene and an excellent coach in Lananna. Some of the area's top runners pass up a scholarship at UP to walk on with the Ducks.

So Conner winds up chasing talent mostly out of state and developing second-layer runners into top-level competitors.

After losing seniors John Moore and Michael Kilburg - who both finished among the top five at the NCAA West Regionals last fall - Conner has reloaded with Kipchumba, a native Kenyan, and Betterbed, a late developer whom the UP coach calls "the next Michael Kilburg."

Conner gave Kipchumba a full scholarship without once seeing him run in person, going on the recommendation of Pilot runner Wesley Tarus, another Kenyan.

"Wesley said (Kipchumba) could be as good as Kinsella," Conner says. "I didn't believe it, to be honest."

Conner got in touch with Kipchumba and suggested he run in a 5,000-meter race in Kenya. The 5-9, 110-pound Kipchumba won in 14:04 on a dirt track; he arrived in Portland in August, only a few weeks later.

"Alfred has been running less than two years," Conner says. "His potential is unlimited. He's very enthusiastic, and a really neat person."

The same can be said for Conner, who ran at UP in the mid-80s and bleeds Pilot purple.

"Coach Conner is great," says Kinsella, a straight-A student who will attend law school at Harvard, Yale or Stanford next year. "He's someone who makes you want to do well for him. He's not a hard ass, bellowing at you during intervals or screaming at you during a race.

"He's not Draconian. He's flexible, personable, and he pays attention to every runner - even those who may never make it on varsity. He'll go running with us sometimes, and I don't feel like we have to inhibit our conversation around him. In a lot of ways, he's one of the guys, and we love him for that."

Conner would never complain about his lot at life at UP. And he holds great respect for the much more high-profile program two hours south. Conner is human, though, and at times wishes there were a bit more level playing field.

That's not going to happen. Oregon has all the resources and, arguably, the top cross-country program in the land.

Memo to those not paying attention: Little brother on the Bluff ain't bad, either.