CHARLESTON (AP) — Erin Howarth saw a gap could form.
The third-year Eastern Illinois head cross country coach did what any good runner would do at that point.
She took strides to prevent the gap from occurring.
Howarth had nine women returning with at least four years' experience of college running, and she had nine women joining the EIU team for the first time this fall. She knew a divide could happen, so she took steps to prevent factions on the team.
Her solution was creating a mentor program.
"I don't like cliques. I don't like groups," Howarth says. "I want this to be a team feel 100 percent. I thought the mentor program with pairing one of those upperclassmen with an underclassmen . they could really show them what it means to be a Panther and take a lot of pride in what they have spent their careers developing to what it is now."
Howarth has a strong distance group returning on the women's side after EIU won the Ohio Valley Conference women's cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field titles during the 2011-12 school year.
She hopes the mentor program helps bridge that success to the new Panther runners.
"I wanted to make sure we used that leadership and that knowledge with the freshmen so they know what it's like for this year. Because next year, they're the top of the totem pole with the three sophomores we have," Howarth says.
The women are divided into nine groups aimed at one-on-one time between the nine veterans and the nine newcomers (eight freshmen and one transfer student).
Howarth created the mentor program for the women in May. She told the mentors the name of their mentee in May to give them a chance to make contact during the summer.
She decided this summer to develop a similar program for the men's team. She divided the team into five groups with four men in each group. The men's mentor program is more aimed at accountability and socialization.
"It is such a huge adjustment to college," Howarth says. "Everyone thinks you're going to be fine. It's not. You struggle in some aspect whether it's athletically, academically or socially. Something is going to give a little bit. I think these upperclassmen have been there and done that and been able to help that transition."
The men's team does not have the age split that exists on the women's team, so Howarth tried to balance each group so it had one freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.
Some of the men's activities have included making a trip to Wal-Mart for the guys without cars on campus, getting together to watch sports, or a trip to Tuscola to get cheap running gear at the outlet mall.
"It's helped," says freshman Tyler Anderson, a cross country state qualifier at Schaumburg High School. "I thought it was great just for us freshman going into college for the first time. If we have any questions, we ask the older guys. They have experience."
Anderson's group is led by senior Doug Mateas and includes sophomores Joe Calio and Jeff Lester.
Mateas, a Winfield native, remembers some of his struggles coming to Eastern as a freshman and has tried to help Anderson handle those problems better.
"The atmosphere for a freshman now is a lot better than when I was a freshman," Mateas says. "I live a 3 ½-hour drive away. Being away from all my friends and family was definitely a big adjustment for me. And just the whole college lifestyle. I know my freshman year, everyone wanted to go out and party every weekend. When you're putting in as many miles as we are in cross country and if you want to take it seriously, you can't really be doing that. It helps to have people there that tell you that you don't need to go out every week and get drunk every weekend. It gives them guidance to have a successful running career."
Danny Delaney is a junior captain on the men's team, and he leads one of the mentor groups.
"This program definitely has let me get to know a freshman a little bit better," says Delaney, who has freshman Derrick Johnson in his group. "To set aside a time to talk and get to know him is great."
Delaney hopes the open line of communication will help more as the season continues.
"You come into college, and you don't have mom and dad making sure you're home at a certain time. That is a big thing," Delaney says. "You have the option on a Wednesday night to go out and party. . Even if it wasn't partying, there is not getting good sleep then getting injured and racing poorly. There's even getting burned out. It's a really long season, and it's hard training. I think this program will help a freshman to talk about it with someone if they're feeling tired or temptations."
EIU senior Britney Whitehead is mentoring transfer student Christina Gastfield. The two have become fast friends and meet weekly to discuss anything and everything.
"It's really nice," says Gastfield, a redshirt-freshman transfer from New Mexico. "We click really well, and we understand each other."
In addition to talking, Gastfield said how much she appreciated Whitehead helping her on move-in day.
"I really like it," Whitehead says of being a mentor. "I know that I'm helping someone, and that is something that I like to do."
Whitehead says she has seen the mentor program benefit Gastfield and the new runners on both teams. She says there is a distinct difference between the way last year's freshmen acclimated to college without the mentor program compared to the group this fall.
"Last year, there were a ton of freshmen guys, and coach Erin (Howarth) was overwhelmed with how new they were and how non-acquainted they were with the team," Whitehead says. "They were just crazy and doing all these crazy things. . This mentor program has really helped everyone just settle in and not feel so much of a freshman experience."
Howarth says the program has been such a success that she cannot find anything she wants to change for next year.
She gave the leaders in each group a list of things that their group can do, and she hopes they will continue doing activities and spending time together through cross country season and into the track and field seasons.
An added benefit is that with the veteran runners devoting time to the younger runners that Howarth and assistant coach Brad Butler can spread more time to the team as a whole.
"I think it's going really, really well," Howarth says. "I feel like not only is it helping the team, but it's helping me and coach Butler as coaches. I found that first week, I was really overwhelmed with making sure that the freshmen are adjusting OK. That is such a concern of mine. . Once I took a step back after that first week, . I tried to help myself to be a better coach and spend my energy on everybody instead of directing all my focus on (the newcomers)."
Howarth used a mentor program previously when she coached at New Mexico, and it was a success. So far, the same can be said at Eastern Illinois where the freshmen are glad she added it this year.
"I didn't know what it was going to be like if it was going to be awkward, but it's worked out really well," says freshman Quincy Knolhoff, who is being mentored by redshirt-junior Emily Pedziwaitr. "All the freshmen that I know are doing really well with it, too. Everybody likes it."
Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, http://www.jg-tc.com