Wake Forest Sports Under Ron Wellman: Part V - Men's and Women's Cross Country

Y'all are lucky... you get a two-fer today, as well as storytime from my years at Wake. Welcome to Part V of my ongoing look at the sports programs under Ron Wellman.

By now, you should be familiar with the drill, but if you're not here's a brief recap: Wake Forest athletic director has recently come under fire for his performance, leading some to publicly call for his ouster. This series is a review of how Wake athletics have fared since Wellman arrived in October 1992, specifically looking at the performance of Wake athletic teams from the 1993-1994 academic year to present when compared to the previous conditions of the programs. Hopefully, this will provide a blueprint with which both sides can argue more intelligently their points in the ongoing Wellman debate.

***** A Brief Note *****

Last week's poll ended in a tie, and while I'm tempted to break it based on the results of the other votes, it has occurred to me that this isn't the most equitable method. As a result, there is a run-off vote between the two options that tied after the article. Vote or die (link decidedly NSFW).

***** Index *****

Part I - Football

Part II - Volleyball

Part III - Men's Soccer

Part IV - Women's Soccer

***** Brief Overview *****

I know next to nothing about Wake cross country. Even after this exercise, I couldn't tell you who has coached the teams (they share a coach with each other and with the track teams), or what historic significance the program has had. According to one article I found, Wake has the 44th best men's cross country program in NCAA history, good for fourth among current ACC schools, which... sure. Sounds good. If you can guess the top three schools on that list without cheating then I'll send you a beer.

Here's how completely under-the-radar the cross country programs fly at Wake. My freshman year, a group of guys in my dorm would go play pickup basketball in the gym. The group was never set, and could range from anywhere from four to a full ten. One of the guys who would occasionally play with us was Nate, probably the most athletic of us (he could almost dunk at about 6-2). Nate didn't live in our dorm, but his girlfriend did, and so he hung out with us fairly frequently despite being an upperclassman.

That year was the year the ACC celebrated its 50th anniversary, and in honor of the occasion the conference named the top 50 athletes in each sport. The Wake athletes were some of the names you would expect: Randolph Childress, Brian Piccolo, etc. The living athletes were honored at halftime of one of the home football games. I was sitting with a friend, and both of us did a double-take: Nate was out there in the line with everyone else. At first, we figured he'd snuck in somehow as a joke, but no, "Nate" was Nathan Sisco, 2001 ACC cross country champion, and holder (at the time) of more than a few Wake distance running records. He'd never said a word about it, and he flew completely under the radar in terms of notoriety.

And that's pretty much Wake cross country in a nutshell.

(In my defense, I was on a first name basis with both Anne Bersagel and Michelle Sikes, both all-ACC runners, but that was due to 1) being less removed in terms of academic years, 2) sharing a common major and numerous classes, and 3) both of them being on the short list of my dad's favorite students.)

So anyway, here's a quick shout out to some of the more notable Wake cross country athletes, so you can at least say you've heard of them:

Ron Rick: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-ACC 1982-1985

Karen Dunn: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-ACC 1985-1986

Jennifer Rioux: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1987; all-ACC 1985-1987

Sue Vander Wagen: all-ACC 1986-87

Bill Babcock: all-ACC 1988-1989

Jon Hume: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1989; all-ACC 1988-1989

Ben Schoonover: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1989; all-ACC 1988-1989

Seana Arnold: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1989; all-ACC 1989

Mary Powell: all-ACC 1989-1990

Jon Sence: all-ACC 1989, 1991

Kyle Armentrout: all-ACC 1990, 1993

Stuart Burnham: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-ACC 1990, 1992-1993

Brant Armentrout: all-ACC 1992-1993

Pat Phillips: all-ACC 1992-1993

Jennifer Finnigan: all-ACC 1992, 1994

Nicole Stevenson: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1993; all-ACC 1992-1995

Cynthia Moreshead: all-ACC 1992, 1994-1995

Eric Dunn: all-ACC 1994-1996

Ben Boyd: all-ACC 1994-1996

Jon Russell: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1996; all-ACC 1995-1996

Nolan Swanson: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1997, all-ACC 1995-1997

Janelle Kraus: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-American 1997, all-ACC 1997-1998

Nathan Sisco: member ACC 50th anniversary team; all-ACC 2001

Annie Bersagel: all-American 2002-2003, 2005; all-ACC 2002, 2005

Selina Sekulic: all-American 2004; all-ACC 2004

Michelle Sikes: all-American 2006; all-ACC 2003-2004, 2006

Nicole Irving: all-ACC 2011-2012

Now, if you looked carefully at that list, you can probably infer quite a few things about the state of the program during the period immediately preceding Wellman's arrival and how the subsequent 21 years have turned out. You likely would not be wrong.

***** A (Long) Note on Methodology *****

Cross country is the first of three sports (the other two being track and field and golf) that do not have a simple win-loss ratio. Meets involve multiple teams, and the final standings for any meet are judged by taking points based on each individual finisher. Typically, this means first place gets one point, second place gets two points, and so on, with the lowest team total of the top ___ runners winning. Usually meets use 5 runners, sometimes it can be as few as 2.

The way this works from a win-loss ratio is this: I've taken the meets I could find (more on this in a sec) and ranked Wake's order of finish in them. If, say, Wake finished 5th in a 9 team meet, then they would get a win percentage of .500 (they finished ahead of 4 teams and behind 4 teams). If they finished 2nd in an 11 team meet, then the win percentage would be .900.

HOWEVER... to say that the history of Wake cross country has vanished into the ether is a bit of an understatement. The last Wake cross country media guide was published before the 2008 season, and the Wake sports online news archives go back to the mid-90's. In terms of establishing consistent criteria over long periods of time, this is pretty obviously no good. So I was left with one of two options: I could use inconsistent amounts of data over these periods, with modern seasons having all of their meets used, or I could use what consistent amounts I could find over the older seasons and use the same events (should they exist) as the whole data set.

I chose the latter, and the only events for which I could consistently find data are the ACC Championship (where Wake's finish was listed in the media guide and I could figure out the number of teams) and the NCAA Regional/National Championships, which Wake didn't qualify for every season. As a result, the only year-to-year meet that I had data for in every season was the ACC Championship (and even that involved a good amount of rummaging). I'm not thrilled with this turn of events by any means, and I suspect the track and field results will be similarly difficult to find.

In short, all of the year-to-year results are based on Wake's performance in one yearly meet. A side product of this is that all of the data below exists simultaneously as the overall and conference data, saving me from having to make and you from having to read twice the number of graphs.


Here are the year-by-year results for each program. I initially tried to fit both sets of data on one graph, but it ended up being pretty much illegible, so... meh. Since I'm from the South, the women's graphs will always be the first of each pair.



Aaaaaaaaaaaaand... I forgot to explain some stuff in the program overview because I was having fun telling my Nathan Sisco story.

Wake's cross country programs have traditionally been fairly strong. The men's program has 4 ACC titles and the women's program has 1. In addition, the benchmark for each program was set relatively high: .524 for the women and .610 for the men; keep in mind that these are only results from the conference championship, so on average the women would be placing about 4th of 8 (beating 4 and losing to 3) and the men would be placing about 3.5th of 8 (beating 4.5 and losing to 2.5) in the pre-FSU ACC. For perspective, in other sports I've covered, men's soccer (and by proxy, women's soccer) have had the highest conference winning percentage at .331. Both cross country programs are well past that mark.

Also, conference expansion changes the math over the course of the period; instead of 8 teams, the ACC progressively had 9, then 11, then 12, and now 15. Every ACC program has fielded a women's cross country program, and for most years the same was true for the men as well.

(The men went from 8 to 9 to 11 to 12 to 11 to 14, because Maryland disbanded its program because of monetary issues a few years ago; Maryland's athletic department was run for a long time by a bunch of chimps throwing feces, and even if they've gotten their act together now - I have no idea - they've still done extreme long-term harm to their non-revenue sports thanks to their gross mismanagement. They're all yours, Jim Delany.)

Okay, rant over... let's look at those graphs. As usual for year-to-year results, there's quite a lot of fluctuation. In fact, there should be more fluctuation than usual because these results are based on one day's race, which - while largely indicative of the year as a whole - increases the chances of an anomalous result.

As always, the silver vertical line represents the demarcation between the Wellman era (1993-1994 onward) and the Gene Hooks era (before that).

Let's see if we can smooth some of the spikes out with the 4 year rolling average graphs:


Here we can see the general arc of the women's program, which is supported by the list of individual honors above: a surge in the mid-late 80's (Dunn, Rioux, Vander Wagen, Arnold, Powell) followed by a strong period from about 1994 through 2000 (Finnigan, Stevenson, Moreshead, Kraus), with another peak in 2004 (Bersagel, Sekulic, Sikes).

If you're wondering, the actual ACC Championship year was 2002. Also, from 1994 through 2006, the 4-year average never dropped below .625.

Of more worrying concern is the noticeable downtick in the past 6-8 years or so. It could just be a poor period for whatever reason (I'd wager realignment has not helped), but it's still something to be concerned about going forward. Still, it's not as worrying as...


Oh wow... that's... that's really bad.

Now there are two ways of looking at this.

First, Wellman inherited a program that was unsustainably good. In the four seasons prior to his arrival: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, or a cumulative win percentage of .933. Factor in the first two years of Wellman's tenure were also ACC titles (this six-year stretch accounts for all 4 of Wake's conference titles), and... yeah... that's really, really good.

However, it's definitely fair to say that while winning ACC titles every year is probably unsustainable, having a traditionally good program get steadily worse for 12 years or so is just flat out ridiculous, particularly when that string has passed well beyond respectability into the realm of cover-your-eyes bad. The nadir was 2009, with an average of .273, and while the average has started to creep back up, it's still much lower than Wake cross country fans are accustomed.

So yeah, if you noticed the complete lack of Wake runners winning accolades recently (except for Nicole Irving - props), it's because our cross country teams have either gone to pot (the women) or been in the pot for some time (the men).


Here are the program cumulative winning percentages under Wellman. I particularly like the men's:



I'm pretty happy if I'm at Emerald Pointe and I'm looking down that graph as a water slide, but if that's an overall performance review... again, that's pretty much the opposite of good, even if it does start at 1.000 after the first two seasons.

The women's graph is not as discouraging, but again you can definitely see a downward trend in recent times, and the prolonged stretch of decreasing winning percentage is definitely a warning sign given the track record of the men.

Lastly, let's take a look at the net wins for each program, which I calculated as the difference in actual winning percentage and projected winning percentage times 10.


For the women, the program peaked in 2005 (+25.8) and 2008 (+25.6), but has been headed downhill since. The program is still comfortably in the net positives for now, but it's been averaging about -1.6 wins over the past 5 seasons.


And the men, despite having massive success at the beginning of Wellman's tenure, are well into the negatives at this point. 11 of the past 12 seasons have ended with negative expected wins, including -5.2 expected wins in 2008 and -4.3 expected wins in 2006. All told, the program peaked at +17.6 wins in 2001 (the year of Sisco's ACC individual title... thanks Nate!) and is currently at -9.5 wins. For as good as the program started under Wellman, it's pretty clear that he's fiddled while watching it burn.

***** Analysis *****

Again, I think the graphs, particularly the men's graph, sum it up better than I ever could. When I was growing up, Wake men's cross country was one of its strongest programs on a yearly basis; now - whether as a result of realignment or general neglect - it's fairly poor.

Women's cross country hasn't slipped to such an extreme degree, but the warning signs of decay are certainly present, and so far remedies to fix the program (Wellman hired John Millar a respected coach from Notre Dame fairly recently) have not taken hold.

***** Running Total *****

No running total this week, until we settle the question of which system to use.


My schedule is looking fairly busy this week, so you might get an update Monday night next week. It will be on field hockey, one of the banner sports in recent memory, and the final fall sport on the docket!

EDIT: I just noticed that the poll cut off the full list for each option. I think y'all can figure it out, but I'll still list the for the official record:

Option 1: the field hockey option

x5: football, men's basketball

x2: men's soccer, women's soccer, field hockey, women's basketball, men's golf, baseball

x1: volleyball, men's cross country, women's cross country, men's track and field, women's track and field, men's tennis, women's tennis, women's golf

Option 2: the revenue/non-revenue delineation option

x5: football men's basketball

x1: volleyball, men's soccer, women's soccer, men's cross country, women's cross country, field hockey, women's basketball, men's track and field, women's track and field, men's tennis, women's tennis, men's golf, women's golf, baseball

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