UF Cross Country: Seniors lead UF to NCAA Meet

Seven long years. <p> That's how long it has been since the Gators men's cross country team qualified for the NCAA Championship. Back in 1997, the Gators finished twenty-second in the NCAA meet, but the 2004 squad has come on stronger than any team in recent years. The Gators finished second in the Southeastern Conference Championships, then followed that up with a second place finish in the South Region Championships.

Senior Steve Zieminski, who finished sixth in the SEC and first in the South regional, has has been with the program through the good, the bad, the ups and downs. He knows what it takes to be a team leader.

"[The seniors] try to set examples kind of on what to do, because we have a couple more years experience," Zieminski said. "I'm happy for the team and am excited to compete."

The Gators have benefited from the coaching of Jeff Pigg, a Florida alum who has led the program for three years. Pigg came to Florida with a goal of establishing the program as one of the SEC's elite. This year's outstanding showing is an indicator that he's got the program on track for bigger and better things in the future.

"It is where Florida should be," Pigg said of Florida's qualifying run for the NCAA championships. "You look at the region and the university and realize that this is team that should be in the hunt every year."

Pigg knows what it's like to be on Florida cross country teams that rank among the nation's best. He was a member of the 1986 squad which finished eighth in the NCAA meet. That experience helps him motivate and prepare his team for big meets.

"The fact that I went there (NCAA meet) as a runner is helpful because I feel like I can draw some parallels between what I went through and what one of my boys is going through," Pigg says. "NCAA's is the biggest meet of the year obviously and everyone is going to give it everything they have."

Zieminski says that Pigg's style of coaching is a huge reason the team has met most of its goals for the year including the ultimate goal of qualifying for the national championship meet. When Pigg was hired, the team was in a real state of uncertainty and the program was going nowhere.

"He's more of a friendly coach I guess you could say and he won't necessarily yell at you as much as an old coach would have," Zieminski said. "He brought a whole new atmosphere to the team."

The emergence of freshman Henock Lechebo to complement Zieminski has helped the Gators record this breakout season. Lechebo, a Toronto, Ontario native, finished eighth in the SEC's (second on the team) and second in the South Regions (again, second on the team).

"Even though we have a couple of seniors that have led us to NCAA's this year, I think we will have a couple guys step up next year as well," Lechebo said. "Running in Florida at first was hard, but it has been very nice here and very motivating to compete."

Many factors can be attributed to the success of the 2004 squad beginning with a boost of senior leadership from Zieminski, Brent Schneider and Cory Presnick to go with an outstanding recruiting class that was led by Lechebo. Pigg has his team poised for a good finish in the NCAA championships Monday at the University of Indiana.

Pigg and the Gators are looking to finish strongly but regardless of Monday's outcome, the cross country program is one that is definitely on the rise.

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