A hallmark of a successful team, regardless of wins and losses, is when the relationships between its members begin to transcend those of “just teammates” and instead more closely resemble a tightly knit family.
To hear a couple seniors on this year’s EIU cross country teams tell it, the Panthers have certainly achieved that transcendence.
“We’re spending just about every day with each other,” said Riley McInerney, a senior and one of just under 40 men and women listed on Eastern’s Fall 2016 roster. “Going to practice early in the morning, a lot of us will meet up for lunch when we can, and almost every night go meet up in the dining halls and have a team dinner.”
“It’s having those peers that are my own age to just go to and be able to vent or celebrate,” adds Ivy Handley, a senior on the women’s team. “Coach Erin (Howarth) is basically my second mom. I just really felt a connection with her from day one.
“She really wants me to be a better person, not just a better runner.”
McInerney, a Charleston native whose parents are Eastern alumni and whose father, John,
is a former member and coach of the EIU cross country program, was more or less born to run as a Panther. The solidifying factor in his decision to attend Eastern, however, came when he made an official recruiting visit that included a team dinner at Howarth’s home.
“She cooked us all food,” remembers McInerney. “All the guys on the team came over. That was my first real exposure, and I just knew right away this is what a team should look like and this is something I know I want to be a part of.”
Now, neither one can imagine running anywhere besides EIU.
“It’s almost home,” said Handley, who grew up in Decatur. “There are lots of times I’ll text my parents to tell them ‘I made it home’ — meaning here — and I’m like ‘Oh, I guess this isn’t really home, but to me it kind of is’.
“I just think there’s a lot of emotion here, a lot of growing up happened over the last couple years.”
McInerney is right there with her.
“You could have given me just about any opportunity that people would dream about, but I just love the school and I always have,” he said. “This was the dream all along.”