Last spring, sophomore distance runner Vincenzo Pugliese broke a school record for the boys’ track and field team.  But at the end of the season, Pugliese switched gears.  This fall, instead of running cross-country, he played varsity soccer, scoring eight goals as the team advanced to the state tournament for the third consecutive year.

Pugliese’s decision to play soccer rather than run cross-country underscores a frustrating reality for North’s year-round distance program: some of its star student-athletes do not participate in all three seasons.

Distance coach Brian Gould understands the value of running year-round.  “If I’m a distance runner, and I throw in a three-month break of just a completely sedentary lifestyle or something not specific to my skill, it’s going to stunt my progression,” Gould said.  “It’s going to essentially put a ceiling on what I’m capable of doing.”

Each season helps runners develop a different skillset, said senior Albert Mendez, the captain of the cross-country team.  In fall cross-country, workouts improve endurance; in winter track, weight-lifting increases strength; and in spring track, training drills build speed.  “If you do all three seasons year-round, you will become a well-oiled machine and become unstoppable,” Mendez said.

In recent years, some observers of youth sports have raised questions about whether it’s healthy for students to play one sport year-round.  But Gould said he doubted that specializing could hinder a teenager’s physical development.  “I’d be surprised if you could show me a scientific, medical or physiological evidence that shows that different sports alter your physical fitness in a different way,” he said.

But according to North’s athletic trainer, Patricia Middlemiss, recent studies do indicate that specialization can be dangerous, especially during the early teenage years.  Middlemiss added, however, that Gould’s training regime is expertly designed to protect runners from injury.  “Coach Gould literally has it down to a science,” she said.  “I don’t worry about any of the athletes here at North running distance.”

Mendez said he works hard to convince his teammates to run all three seasons.  Team members use “rhetoric, persuasion and peer pressure” to convince promising student-athletes to stick with the sport, said senior Colin Stern, who runs year-round.

But these efforts, and the perks of belonging to what several runners described as a tight-knit and supportive athletic family, aren’t always enough to keep the team intact.

Sophomore John Mundia, who ran distance last year, played soccer in the fall, despite pressure from the runners to join the cross-country team instead.  This season, Mundia said, his parents insisted he skip winter track and focus on schoolwork.

Pugliese said he joined track mostly to stay in shape for soccer.  “Track’s a resource to get bigger and faster,” he said.

Sophomore Sean Robinson, a soccer player who runs distance in the winter and spring, said track has never been his primary sport.  “I’ve just loved playing soccer so much,” he said.  “It just feels natural to me.”

Gould said he sometimes stops track athletes in the hallway to encourage them to join the cross-country team.  “I don’t hold it against them if they don’t want to,” he said.

“Cross-country’s a sport where you really have to want to be there to be successful,” Gould added.  “Do I encourage people to be the best they can be?  Yeah. What kind of coach would I be if I didn’t?”

Student-athletes disagreed about whether the persuasive methods Gould employs in team speeches and private conversations are designed to make runners feel guilty about leaving the program.

“He definitely does that,” said one student-athlete, who asked to remain anonymous.  “He tries to make running seem like a more high-profile activity compared to soccer or basketball.”

“You want to represent your school well,” Mundia said.  “Not being able to do that, and the way Coach Gould puts it to the other runners, it does make you feel guilty.”

Several other student-athletes—including Pugliese, Robinson and freshman Matthew Santa Maria, a cross-country runner who joined the wrestling team this winter—said Gould did not try to make them feel guilty about their participation in other sports.

Asked whether he employs guilt tactics, Gould replied, “That’s ridiculous.”

Mendez said that although Gould never intends to make student-athletes feel uncomfortable, he “can come off as guilting people” because of his intense desire to promote a sport he genuinely loves.  “Coach Gould is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in my life,” Mendez said.  “It’s never something to be intimidated by.  It’s just something to grab a hold of and just try to go along with the ride.”

Cross-country coach Monica Biro said she and Gould never steer student-athletes away from activities they enjoy.  “You’ve got to follow your heart,” Biro said.  “We’re just trying to better the individual—mentally, physically, spiritually, athletically.”

Mendez echoed those sentiments.  “It’s frustrating,” he said, to lose student-athletes like Pugliese and Robinson to the soccer team.  “But you understand that some goals and ambitions are also as important to them as track is to us.”

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