Launched in 1979, the lineup of past Big East Conference men's cross county champions is loaded with the lustrous.
The 34-year-long list includes such luminaries as Providence's John Gregorek (1979 and 81), Villanova's Marcus O'Sullivan (1983), Georgetown's John Trautmann (1988 and 89), Villanova's Terrence Mahon (1991), Providence's Mark Carroll (1992), Notre Dame's Ryan Shay (1999), Villanova's Bobby Curtis (2004 and 07), Providence's Martin Fagan (2005 and 06), and more.
But Martin Hehir of Syracuse, who joined the distinguished roster at Van Cortlandt Park Friday afternoon, will forever stand alone.
With his 24:37.20 triumph over the classic 8,000-meter route in the North Bronx, Hehir will be recorded as the only runner ever to be unbeaten all-time in Big East Championship XC competition.
There are special circumstances, of course.
As a freshman last year, the former star at Washingtonville (N.Y.) High School, who'd placed 14th in the 2010 Nike Nationals, sat out the varsity XC season as a redshirt — Syracuse coach Chris Fox thought he wasn't really ready for the prime time of national-level competition.
A year later, Hehir is proving himself more than merely ready.
With the Big East title meet back at Van Cortlandt for the first time since 2008, Hehir uncorked a brilliant sprint finish that carried him home to the win in the final meters of the Vanny flats just a single long stride ahead of Providence sophomore Shane Quinn (24:38.81) with Notre Dame senior Jeremy Rae (24:39.39) one more stride back in a dazzling duel that will rank as a Big East all-timer.
Since this was Syracuse's final year in the Big East — the Orange is bailing out to join the Atlantic Coast Conference starting in 2013-2014 — Hehir will not get to defend his Big East crown and will step away from the league an all-time 1-0.
In the process of leading the tightly-bunched individual pack — five others were within 10 seconds of him — Hehir also got to lead the Syracuse team to its third Big East XC crown in the past four years.
"Just like practice, just like every workout, all of us (his Syracuse running mates), just worked it together." said Hehir. "When it started breaking up, we were in good position, all still in the front pack. Coming in, I wasn't even thinking about the guy (Quinn) ahead of me. I just heard a guy (Rae) coming up behind me.
"I didn't want to lose a point, I just wanted to gain a point. Every single point mattered."
Having his own cheerleading team there — Mom, Dad and grandfather — helped, too.
"We're a real running family," said his his mother, Mrs. Evelyn Hehir, who sported a "Real Moms Wear Orange" t-shirt.
"We were maybe 100 meters from the finish line. I didn't have a clear view of what happened. When somebody said that he'd won it, I just couldn't believe it."
"We've been training so great," said Syracuse coach Fox. "We knew good things were going to happen. We had a little bit of an off-day at Wisconsin (two weeks ago.) We wound up 11th when I think we should have placed third or fourth. We kind of fell apart after 5k there.
"So we fixed a few things after that, rested a little bit, kept the intensity down, and it all paid off today. This means an awful lot to us. We want to be at least top 10 at Nationals. We know we have that ability."
This is Fox's seventh season at Syracuse (after previous coaching assignments at George Washington, North Carolina and Auburn) and he's worked wonders leading the Orange to national prominence. Of course, he was a nationally prominent runner in his own right before then. An Auburn graduate, he clocked bests of 3:59.10 (mile), 13:34.14 (5,000 meters) and 2:13.40 (marathon).
He hopes there's a future Olympian somewhere on his Syracuse squad — since that's a goal that thrice eluded him. He ran fifth in the USA 5,000-meter Trials in 1984 and ninth in 1988; moving up to the marathon, he was seventh in the 1992 Trials for the 26.2-miler.
There weren't many degrees of separation in the women's individual 6,000-meter race, either. All of 79/100ths of a second, actually.
Long Islander Emily Lipari, the Villanova junior from Roslyn, had just enough to beat out Providence freshman Sarah Collins for the individual gold, 20:45.33 to 20:46.12. (Like silver-medal Friar teammate Shane Quinn, Collins is from Ireland.)
Team-wise, though, it was Georgetown's defending national champions on top, by a 58-68 margin over Connecticut, with Providence third (80) and Lipari-led Villanova just fourth (83) and seeing its four-year Big East winning streak put to an end.
"Everybody knows that this race is do-or-die, about giving your all," said Lipari. "And that's exactly what I did.
"I'm a native New Yorker, so I love this Van Cortlandt Park course. It brings out the best in me. We've all run it so many times before, we kind of treat it like a home course.
"We'll all have to run great races at Regionals, two weeks from now, if we want to get back to Nationals again (Lipari has fond memories as the youngest scorer on the 2010 NCAA title team.) We're going to stick our noses in, dive for the finish line, come across on all fours if we have to. That's what Villanova's all about.
"This is probably my biggest win since high school," she said. "I've got great teammates. We may fall, but when we do we all get up together. When you wear this Villanova shirt, you wear it proudly.
"My sophomore year didn't go the way I expected, I went home over the summer, made some big decisions, picked my head up, and came back with a vengeance." A psychology major, her career plan focus on the fields of physical and occupational therapy.
Michael Smith had been an All-America runner at Georgetown (class of 2002) and returned to his alma mater as women's head coach after serving under famed coach Dr. Jack Daniels at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff, Arizona. He guided star athletes from Japan and Australia as well as the U.S. and comes back to the collegiate scene full of bright ambition.
"As always, the Big East is a very competitive conference," he said. "Last year Georgetown finished third here and still went on to win Nationals. That will tell you something about the Big East.
"The hardest part of this course is always the back hills, so we had to have another gear to go to when we got there. We stayed composed, and found that gear. We turned a 6,000-meter race into a 1-mile race and that's what won it. We have a lot of footspeed on this team. Check our 1,500-meter PRs and we have some fast runners.
"We were definitely not first midway in this race. Our top runners, Maddy (Madeline) Chambers and Katrina Coogan were probably 17th and 18th heading into the woods, but that's when we made our big moves."
This is a young-young women's Georgetown team with just a single senior in its scoring five.
Sophs Chambers (21:00.01), Coogan (21:04.77) and Annamarie Maag (21:15.83) and freshman Samantha Nadel (21:26.18) powered the Hoyas in the 7-8-10-16 places and senior Kristen Kasper (17th in 21:30.24) wrapped it up.
"We know that Maddy can run with some of the best in the country," said Smith. "And Katrina has a whole lot of talent, too." Excellent genes, too — her parents are USA Olympians Mark Coogan (the 1996 Atlanta marathoner now coaching at Dartmouth) and Gwyn Coogan (who ran the 10,000 meters at Barclona in 1992).
For Nadel, the former star at North Shore (N.Y.) High School, this was her very start as a collegian. "Big, big day for her," said Smith.
"At Georgetown, we don't train for September, we don't train for October." Smith said. "We train for the National Championships and you know that at Regionals and Nationals we're going to be a lot better."
The Big East's own pre-race men's formchart listed Syracuse as nothing better than a "wild card" to win it. After all, 2011 kingpin Villanova returned its first three, and Georgetown and Louisville brought back top talent.
But Hehir-led, underclass-dominated Syracuse made a shambles of these prognostications by putting junior Joe Whelan in fourth (24:40.27), sophomores Ryan Urie (24:52.32) and Reed Kamyszek (24:53.69) 9-10, and senior Griff Graves (24:58.15) 13th.
That toted up to a runaway winning score of 37 points, easily outpointing runner-up Georgetown (67), third-place Notre Dame (70), fourth-place Providence (109), fifth-place Villanova (114) and nine more. For Notre Dame and 12th-place Pitt, it was a farewell to the Big East, too.
Louisville ran sixth in men's team scoring and 13th in the women's race. Obviously, the Cardinals will have to run a whole lot better if they hope to run in the biggest collegiate race of the year, in their own backyard. The NCAA Championships take place at Louisville's Tom Sawyer Park on November 17.