Near the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, Ryan Vanhoy and Michelle Chewens coached their cross country runners in the humid weather that sometimes would reach temperatures over 100 degrees.
But even with the not-ideal training conditions, Vanhoy and Chewens helped build the Ole Miss distance program into a national powerhouse, producing multiple All-Americans and SEC champions while at Ole Miss.
In 2022, Vanhoy and Chewens made the move to much cooler weather at Cal Poly. Vanhoy was named the Director of Track and Field and Cross Country, and his wife Chewens became the head coach of Women’s Cross Country as well as an assistant track coach.
Early in Vanhoy and Chewens’ tenure, the program has already found major success. During their first season in 2022, the program swept the Big West Tournament for both the men’s and women’s sides. In the same year, graduate student Jake Ritter captured three Big West individual cross country titles and was named Big West Men’s Athlete of the Year.
Looking at this season, the men’s and women’s team heads into the Big West Championship at Blacklake Golf Resort on Friday, Oct. 27, both sides hope to repeat as champions.
The men’s team is ranked seventh in the USTFCCCA West Region rankings and the top-ranked Big West team. The women are No. 9 in the USTFCCCA West Region rankings and are two spots behind UC Davis.
‘We feel like we can build an elite program here’
Under the second-year duo of Vanhoy and Chewens, the Cal Poly program has already made historic strides.
The San Luis Obispo area’s climate and the well-maintained running trails, in tandem with the strong academics at Cal Poly make the school a premiere training location, Chewens said.
“We feel like we can build an elite program here,” Chewens said.
The teams started the year off by taking both team titles at the Big West Preview.
Early in the season, the team put themselves on the national stage at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Oregon, where the men finished first place ahead of nationally ranked programs, such as No. 15 Oregon and No. 9 Portland.
“Anytime you beat a team like Oregon, people in our sport or running world take notice,” Vanhoy said. “Cal Poly is not supposed to beat Oregon,”
On the women’s side at the invitational in Oregon, the team finished third ahead of No. 17 Oregon State and were only bested by two nationally ranked teams, No. 6 BYU and No. 7 Oregon, as they took third place.
Because of their performance, the men’s team came out with a national ranking for the first time in 12 years with a No. 29 national ranking, while the women’s received votes for the first time since 2018.
Following their performance at the invitational, the men’s team blew out the competition at the Bronco Invitational at Santa Clara with seven runners finishing in the top 25.
At the same time, the women’s squad flew across the country to the Pre-Nationals in Panorama Farms, Virginia, where they placed seventh out of 24 teams against tough competition, including six nationally ranked programs.
How two transfers have made their impact
A huge factor for the Mustangs’ success is two new faces that have led the women’s and men’s sides. Junior Hana Catsimanes led the women in Oregon as she finished 18th and posted a personal best in the 6K.
Catsimanes, a transfer student from Wake Forest, has been a massive addition to the women’s team. Her previous relationship with Chewens, who recruited her to Wake Forest before leaving for Ole Miss, drew her to Cal Poly.
“Once I saw that she came here I thought it would be a good opportunity because I knew how good of a coach she was,” Catsimanes said.
The decision to come to the West Coast is paying off for the distance runner, as she led her team with a fourth-place finish at the Big West Preview.
On the men’s side, graduate student Davis Bove has been a major standout. Bove, who’s won Big West Men’s Cross Country Athlete of the Week twice, has dominated the competition, as he secured the first-place individual title at the Dellinger Invitational and the Santa Clara Bronco Invitational.
Similar to Catsimanes, Bove also came to Cal Poly because of the coaching staff.
After graduating LSU last Spring, Vanhoy called Bove to try to bring him to Cal Poly. Vanhoy pitched Cal Poly’s strong academic and cool weather. According to Vanhoy, he asked Bove if he wanted to take a chance to “do something totally different.”
“Are you going to stay somewhere where you’re comfortable or maybe take a chance?” Vanhoy said about the call.
Bove was sold. He called Vanhoy one of the best distance coaches and credited the area and institution for the reasons why he decided to transfer to Cal Poly.
Despite the wins, Vanhoy believes that his team is capable of doing even better. The men’s team had a few people who came down with a cold, and he believes this stunted their ability to perform at their best at the Bill Dellinger Invitational.
Victories like these have improved the confidence of a program that is looking to sweep the Big West Championships on Oct. 27th. As for how the teams are preparing, they are planning on keeping things relatively the same.
“Focusing on running as a team, being really consistent at practice every day and in our workouts, and executing as best we can on race day,” Chewens said.
Their coaching sentiments align well with each other, as Vanhoy also explained how the wins give them a good idea of where they are at, but they don’t really change how they plan to prepare moving forward. Rather, both styles have their teams looking inward for preparation.
“We’re just going to be focusing on ourselves and not worrying too much about what everyone else is doing,” Chewens said.
With the ideas of consistency from practice and confidence from winning in mind, the program will look to win back-to-back Big West Championships as the team returns to Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo, California, where Cal Poly will be the host.
The men’s team runs at 8:30 a.m in Nipomo., while the women’s race starts at 9:15.