By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The first year in a new job is a time of transition, and that’s been the case for Vin Lananna at the University of Virginia. But this has been a transition unlike any other for Lananna, a coaching legend who was hired in September to direct UVA’s cross country and track & field programs.
Lananna had been on the job about six months when, on the eve of the NCAA indoor track & field championships, college sports were canceled in March because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
“I think you could probably take that even further and say I’ve never had a year, whether it’s first, second, fifth or 10th, that’s been like this,” Lananna said. “This is crazy.”
Working remotely from home, Lananna, 66, has adapted to the new landscape of college athletics. “I’ve become a Zoom meeting king,” he said, laughing. At this time last year, he’d never heard of a Zoom meeting. “Now I can navigate my way through any meeting, with as many people as possible,” Lananna said.
Final exams end this week at UVA, where students switched to online classes in March. Even without daily practices and weekend meets, Lananna said, “I am more busy with no kids here than I am with the kids here, because all the things that need to get done, I actually have the time to do it. Whereas in the past, I’ve had all these same things to do, I just haven’t had time to get it done, so it sits on the [to-do] list. Now I just kind of plow through it.”
Lananna said it’s too early to know how many of the Cavaliers’ seniors will return in 2020-21. They’re eligible to come back, but to do so they must be accepted into graduate programs, and how the program’s scholarships would be divided has yet to be determined.
The Wahoos’ coaching staff meets on Zoom three times a week, Lananna said. “So much of what we need to do is recruit, and that’s what we’re doing.”
In late December, Lananna announced the 10 recruits who had signed with UVA in November for 2020-21: seven women and three men. The Cavaliers have added more recruits since then, and the additional signees are likely to be announced this month.
“We have two really good classes,” Lananna said. “I think our women’s class is quite strong. Our men’s class is good, and there are a couple of young men that will be transferring in, and depending on what happens with seniors who stay, we could be really good next year.”
That the fall semester had already started when Lananna arrived in Charlottesville hindered the Hoos’ recruiting efforts for 2020-21, “in particular in the middle distance and distance areas on the men’s side and the women’s side,” he said. “I didn’t contact any kids until October, and most [other schools] had been talking to kids for 13 months by that time. This time we’re ahead of the curve. It’s always difficult to get a late start, but this year we had a really early start for the student-athletes who will join us in the fall of ’21, and that’s what primarily we’re focusing on.”
As a head coach, Lananna has won 11 NCAA team championships: six at Oregon (three in women’s indoor track & field, one in men’s indoor track & field, and two in men’s cross country) and five Stanford (three in men’s cross country, one in men’s outdoor track & field, and one in women’s cross country).
At the ACC cross country meet in November, the UVA men placed fourth and the women 11th. At the ACC indoor track & field championships in February, the Virginia men finished third. The women placed 10th but could have finished much higher.
“We had a couple of bad breaks indoors,” Lananna said, and he was optimistic about the Cavaliers’ prospects this spring.
“I was really looking forward to the outdoor season,” he said, “because I think both teams would have been in the hunt for the conference title. As hard as people might think that is to believe, based on the performances that we had in both cross country and indoor track, I think both teams would have been in the thick of it. We would have scored a lot of points.
“Now, would it have been enough to win? That I can’t answer, because I haven’t seen an ACC meet. But it’s simple enough in track to be able to look at numbers and statistics and comparisons, and you should be able to compare it to a scoring sheet and be able to figure out how many points it’s going to take to be top three at the conference, and we certainly would have been that.”
Virginia’s standouts in 2019-20 on the men’s side included Jordan Scott (triple jump and long jump), Owayne Owens (triple jump), Derek Pekar (heptathlon), Elby Omohundro (heptathlon), Sam Young (pole vault), Brenton Foster (high jump), Brandon Outlaw (400 meters) and Jordan Willis (400 meters). Moreover, Lananna saw tremendous improvement from his distance runners, including Rohann Asfaw, Ari Klau and AJ Ernst.
On the women’s side, Jada Seaman, who specializes in the long jump and the 200-meter dash, became the first Cavalier to the named women’s indoor ACC Freshman of the Year. Also named first- or second-team All-ACC at the women’s indoor meet were Khyasia Caldwell (long jump), Anna Jefferson (400 and 200 meters), Andrenette Knight (400 meters) and Alix Still (pentathlon).
In addition, Lananna said, the “improvement on the women’s middle distance and distance was outstanding, even though there weren’t a lot of points to show for it. One good thing about track is you really can compare objectively, and as I look at objectively what these young women did, it’s pretty impressive. And I think they created the foundation for what our team is going to look like in the future.”
Lananna has met with each event group on Zoom. “We’ve had one complete team meeting, and we’ll have another once their finals are over,” he said.
With team members spread around the country, the coaching staff has “been emphasizing the importance of making sure that they’re doing well academically and following whatever the CDC guidelines are, to be safe,” Lananna said. “And then the third thing is to just try to stay as fit as they can, using alternative methodology, and they’re pretty creative.”
Lananna, who also has been head coach at Dartmouth, said the “best thing that I’ve seen at Virginia is the type of kids that they are. They’re motivated, they’re conscientious, they do all the small things and big things well, and I think whatever we build will be built on that foundation. I see evidence even in these Zoom meetings that they are really conscientiously trying to think of what it means to stay fit and what they can do. It’s easy for running, but it’s not necessarily easy for every other event.”
When he took the job in September, Lananna expressed confidence that UVA could become a national power in track & field and cross country. His confidence hasn’t waned.
“I feel stronger than ever,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a theory and a hunch and another thing to actually be immersed in it. I don’t feel in any way, shape or form that any of the goals and aspirations in any way have been dampened. I actually feel they’ve been enhanced.”