SAN MARCOS — For CSUSM redshirt junior cross country runner Shea Vavra, speedy long-distance running has always come naturally.
It started in middle school, said Vavra — a kinesiology major — where during weekly mile runs, he would go out aggressively and always run for the win during gym class. And it continued at Escondido High School, where Vavra ran personal bests of 4 minutes 27 seconds in the 1,600 meter (just shy of a mile) and 1:58 in the 800 meter (just shy of a half-mile) as a top runner for the team.
But Vavra said he did not like cross-country when he first tried it in high school.
“But then I kind of realized that everyone on the team was pretty cool,” he said. “And like, I like the whole environment of cross-country practices, and this whole experience of meets and everything. And I think after my freshman year of high school, that’s when I really started to get into it and take it seriously.”
A 2016 high school graduate, Vavra’s improvements as a runner have continued steadily throughout college, running personal bests of 1:55 and 3:55 in the 800 meter and 1,500 meter, respectively, during his 2019 track season. The 1,500-meter time converts to a 4:13 in the full mile.
And in cross-country, Vavra finished in 24th place at the 2018 West Region Championship for National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division-II meet and 17th at the California Collegiate Athletic Association conference championship meet.
But cross-country, first and foremost, is a team sport. Though few teams make it to the national meet, even fewer individuals can punch a ticket to the big dance. Unlike track, everyone runs in the same race and team points are tallied according to place finished.
And after the team made the national meet for the first time in program history last fall, Vavra said the team is hungry for more in 2019 and hopes to place higher than its seventh-place finish in 2018.
The sentiment was echoed by second year coach Torrey Olsen, who said the team hopes not only to make the national meet in Sacramento, but to perform well there.
“The guys have really high goals,” Olsen said. “I don’t want to put them out there, but they certainly involve a strong improvement over last year and the guys’ goals this year are at the national meet. Whereas last year, the goal was more so to make the national meet happen.”
Olsen said that eight men from the 2018 cross-country team return for the 2019 campaign, including Joshua Litwiller, a graduate of Carlsbad’s La Costa Canyon High School. Litwiller just missed qualifying for the national meet in the 10,000-meter run during the track season. And he mentioned key freshmen recruits and transfer student-athletes, with a deep roster of 23 total runners.
Vavra grew up in a track family. His dad, Mark Vavra, was a collegiate 400-meter hurdler, while his grandfather was a sprinter and mom ran the 800-meter in high school. Mark Vavra was also Shea’s cross country and track coach in high school.
Vavra said that one of the draws of going to CSUSM was being able to stay close to home.
“I can pretty much have my whole family come to support me,” he said. “And that helps out a lot.”
He added that two of his favorite places to train in the area are the trails by Lake Hodges situated along the Escondido-Rancho Bernardo border and at Walnut Grove Park in San Marcos.
Olsen said that if Vavra stays healthy in the weeks ahead, he can compete at the top level within NCAA Division-II for cross-country.
“Shea is very coachable and very talented. His drive is unquestionable,” said Olsen. “He is a bit injury prone, so we are careful there. He missed a month of running in the track season and managed to come back and still run lifetime bests, which speaks to the consistency of his development the year leading up to that.”
Unlike last year’s national meet held in Billings, Montana, in sub-freezing conditions, Sacramento’s average temperature during late-November sits at highs of about 65 degrees and lows of 46. Olsen said that those are weather conditions far more amenable for his runners.
The Cougars kick off their season on Sept. 7 at Biola University in La Mirada, California. On Sept. 13, they will play host to the Cougar Invitational hosted at CSUSM.