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Way better than average, Pauley ends cross country career in style

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Seven years ago, senior Cooper Pauley completed his first official cross country season in Lanark, Ill., as a freshman at Eastland High School.

The result?

“I wasn’t very good,” said Pauley, who was originally drawn to the sport as a way to get in shape for the upcoming basketball season.

Pauley improved throughout his high school career and turned “not very good” into what he called “average.” Still, his goal of reaching the state meet in either cross country or track during his high school career eluded him.

So the Monmouth College cross country coaches were not exactly getting a “blue chip” recruit when Pauley arrived on campus in the fall of 2014. What the Fighting Scots got instead was the living embodiment of the famous Zig Ziglar quotation: “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.”

Pauley was one of just four men’s runners for the Scots that fall, which meant even more attention than usual from then-head coach Roger Haynes, and from assistant Jon Welty, who would take over the reins the following season. Assistant coach Brian Woodard has also made an impact on Pauley throughout his time at Monmouth.

By the time Pauley’s cross country career concluded Nov. 11 at the Midwest Regional, he had run the seventh-best time for any Monmouth runner on any course, turning in a personal-best time of 25:07 at Saukie Golf Course in Rock Island, Ill.

“Cooper worked extremely hard to get to where he is now and has improved in every facet of his training,” praised Welty. “I truly believe he epitomizes what Monmouth is all about. We’re all about developing, and we want you to leave here a much better product than when you arrived. Cooper has shown that by approaching things the right way and doing everything he could day in and day out that you can achieve success.”

Pauley realized he might be onto something in the spring of his freshman year when he had a solid showing at the Midwest Conference indoor meet.

“Before I came here, I thought I’d be an OK college runner,” said Pauley, a wellness administration major. “My eyes were really opened my freshman year in track, when I scored at the conference meet in both the 5K and 3K.”

But just when Pauley was building momentum, he had a sophomore slump.

“It was a very rough year,” he said. “I’d never had any setbacks before, but I struggled with an iron deficiency and with some injuries. Mentally, I had to pull myself out of it. But it made me stronger. I had to go about my mental approach in a different way.”

Entering his junior season, Pauley set a goal of lowering his 8K time to 26:30, and he was right around that mark at the MWC Championships with a fourth-place time of 26:33 that netted him his first all-league honor. His success carried over into track, where he made the podium as a third-place finisher in the 5K at the MWC indoor meet and placed third again outdoors in the 10K.

As his senior year began, the momentum train was fully back on the rails, and Pauley cut his 8K time by more than 30 seconds at the MWC meet to again earn all-conference honors. But that success didn’t fully prepare him for what happened at his final collegiate cross country meet.

“I was hoping to run 25:30,” said Pauley of the regional race. “It’s the hardest regional in the country, with 10 of the top 25 teams there, and the amount of good people running can push everybody along early. Plus, I knew it was a pretty flat course.”

After the first part of the race, Pauley realized he was under his goal pace – way under.

“It was kind of surreal,” he said.

When Pauley crossed the finish line, he had lowered his personal best 8K time by nearly a minute, and only national steeplechase champion Zach Barr, All-American Dan Schisler and three other Scots – Geoff Bird, Clay Staley and Jake Barr – have run a faster time than Pauley’s 25:07 for that distance in school history.

Now Pauley is turning his sites to his final track season, with goals of helping the Scots sweep the indoor and outdoor team titles and claiming an individual title of his own in the 10,000-meter run.

“Back in high school, I never thought I’d even be running in college, so this has all been a great experience,” said Pauley. “I wouldn’t be here without the coaches. They laid the whole foundation. If you put in the work, you’re going to see results. They always make sure you’re ready, and they put you in the right position to run well when it gets time for the conference meet and regionals.”