Underdog no more

Hickman’s Tim Cornell has many miles to go for a second straight state title.
Monday, September 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

At first glance, he doesn’t look like much.

He is 5 feet 8 and barely 140 pounds, and his size alone provokes snap judgments about his athletic ability. A navy T-shirt hangs off his bony frame and a pair of worn running shoes adorns his feet. No one, certainly, would label this kid a physical masterpiece.

It’s just before 7 a.m. on a sleepy Saturday morning in August and the Hickman cross country team is gathered at the school’s track for a summer practice. Arms crossed, the boy stares blankly ahead as coach Steve Kissane doles out instructions. When the team splits up a few minutes later, you half-expect him to grab a clipboard and join the coaches on the sideline as a team manager.

Then the team’s workout begins, and immediately it becomes obvious, as he breaks into stride, why every cross country runner in the state of Missouri knows his name.

Tim Cornell, who will line up at Saturday’s Missouri C.C. Challenge at A.L. Gustin golf course, is the clear favorite to win this year’s Missouri 4A Cross Country Championship. After finishing 31st in the state as a sophomore, he returned a year later and shocked the competition, finishing first in 16:01.33, more than 10 seconds ahead of the next-fastest finisher on the 3.1-mile course.

“It was definitely a lot easier last year,” said Cornell, now a senior. “I was the underdog, and I liked that role. I like doing things that people don’t think I can do.”

This year, he won’t have the luxury of a surprise attack. Last fall’s breakout performance quickly pushed him into the spotlight in a sport in which athletes study each other religiously. Now, he is the runner that the underdogs will be watching. He is the one they will whisper about as they warm up on Saturday mornings this fall; the one they will think about when they are training, waiting for their shot at him.

He is the one who will carry the burden of being the defending state champion.

How he deals with that burden will most likely determine if he ends his career as Hickman’s only two-time state champion, or a talented runner who couldn’t pull off that last victory. Kissane, who has known Cornell since he was in sixth grade, is confident it will be the former.

“Tim has the perfect combination of talent and mindset,” Kissane said. “Lots of runners have thephysical talent, but not the right competitive mindset.

Last year, Tim didn’t just say ‘I want to do better’, he said, ‘I want to win state.’ Then he studied the sport, learned the sport, and then went out and achieved that goal.”

Nevertheless, winning multiple state titles is a daunting task, even for Missouri’s most accomplished runners. Matt Tegenkamp, a former distance icon at Lee’s Summitwho won a USATF Junior Cross Country National Championship while running for Wisconsin, won only one state title.

Missouri’s most recent two-time winner, Adam Perkins (who won in 2001 and 2002 while running for Liberty High School), ran 10 seconds slower and won by a considerably smaller margin the second time around.

“The pressure is definitely felt,” said Perkins, who now runs at Arkansas. “Everyone has expectations that you will repeat. And once you’ve won state, you start thinking about other obstacles you can accomplish, like (breaking) state records.”

If the outside pressure is a problem for Cornell, it isn’t showing.

“What you have to realize is that I put more pressure on myself than anyone else could ever put on me,” Cornell said. “More than my parents, more than my coach, more than my teammates. So these outside pressures don’t really affect me much.

“As hard as it is to get to the top, it’s even harder to stay there,” Cornell said. “And I am fully aware of that.”

That’s why, after the 2003 season, he revamped his training schedule, significantly increasing the intensity of his daily workouts. The long runs became longer, the shorts runs became faster and Sundays were no longer considered off days.

This summer, while team members were calling Kissane to ask for permission to miss a workout or two, Cornell approached his coach and asked for permission to add two morning practices to his hectic weekly schedule.

“He just knows his body so well and he knows those lines so well, that he realizes exactly what his body can and can’t tolerate,” Kissane said. “He’s an incredibly self-motivated and relentless person and what he brings to our team, you can’t put a price on.”

It is this relentlessness that has caused Tim’s mother, Patty, to force her son to take a day off every now and then.

“He gets up at 5:30 a.m., runs at 6 a.m., goes to school, practices again in the afternoon, and then does it all over again the next day,” said Patty, a physical education teacher at Paxton Keeley Elementary. “It’s crazy.”

The way Cornell has resisted the urge to become content after last year’s state championship performance is what Kissane said has impressed him the most this season.

“You have to train at an incredibly high level to do what Tim does,” Kissane said. “And right now, he’s training at as high a level as anyone we’ve had. When he decides he is going to do something, he works his tail off until he does it.”

During one week last season, Cornell struggled with an injury and was forced into limited practice time. Although Kissane wanted to keep him out of the team’s next meet, the Hancock Invitational in St. Louis, Cornell persuaded his coach to let him run.

He ran in the meet, and finished a “disappointing” fourth. Following the race, Cornell silently vowed to never get beat like that again.

He didn’t lose another race all season.

“Tim is extremely motivated by defeat,” Kissane said. “He just hates to lose, whether it’s a race, a round of golf, in school. He’s got such a great outlook on competition.”

This season, Cornell is also realizing the tedious nature of the recruiting process. Numerous universities have contacted him to discuss his running future. The phone calls and letters have become more prevalent than when they first started arriving two years ago.

Duke, Missouri, Wake Forest and Oklahoma State are all among the schools vying for his services, and on average, Patty says Cornell gets one call a night from college recruiters.

“I’d be lying if I said that (the recruiting process) didn’t affect me at all,” Cornell said. “It makes it a little bit harder to concentrate. I try not to think about it too much right now, but it’s always there in the back of my mind.”

Despite all the attention, Cornell has managed to keep a level head. When answering questions about his individual success, he is quick to spin the answers to include his coach and teammates. During preseason workouts, when Kissane had the team fill out their individual goals for the season on a note card, he was surprised to find that Cornell had listed only team goals.

“We’ve had a lot of great kids come through this program, and Tim is as great as any of them,” Kissane said. “I wouldn’t trade the time I spent with him for anything.”

Cornell said he is putting everything into this last season, putting off recruiting trips until after the state meet.

Cornell said keeping the team close will be key, and so far, it has gone well. The team regularly spends time together away from the track, and Cornell has apparently taken it upon himself to foster a family atmosphere at practice.

“Tim has helped me out a lot,” freshmen Christian Hulen said. “He’s helped me get to know people on the team and just fit in with some of the older guys.”

Even experienced runners say they have benefited from having him around. Senior Ian McLeod, who routinely joins Cornell on his morning runs, said he has discovered a newfound confidence since he began training with Cornell.

“Just being able to do workouts with the state champion brings my goals a little bit more down to earth,” McLeod said. “I know what it takes to be an elite runner because I see it every day in practice.”

Cornell is off to a good start this season after winning Friday’s St. Charles Invitational and leading the team to fourth. The win, in 16:31, extends his streak of consecutive victories to five going into this weekend.

Kissane is convinced that if Cornell maintains his focus and his level of training, he will be the runner to beat at the state meet, two months from now.

“If he gets to the starting line in November, I like his chances,” Kissane said. “I like them a lot.”

Cornell finishes his workout, a grueling set of 200-meter intervals on the grass of the football field, and slowly moves towards the bleachers. The sweat that saturates his shirt offers insight into the intensity of his last two hours.

It’s 9 a.m., and the early-morning clouds have given way to a rising sun. Cornell has thrown a Cardinals hat onto his shaved head, and as he makes his way across the parking lot, where his car awaits him, he looks not like Missouri’s most promising distance runner, but a skinny teenager in dire need of some rest.

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