Richard Ellsworth: How to Walk-On to RIT’s Varsity Cross Country Team

Table of Contents

Introduction

Richard Ellsworth (@rrellswo)—a senior in Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Computer Engineering program—walked on RIT’s varsity cross country team as a freshman. As a walk-on athlete, Ellsworth faced many unique challenges. His story offers excellent advice to students wishing to join RIT’s cross country team. Furthermore, his perspective as a Computer Engineering student gives insight into the school-life balance of one of the most challenging majors at RIT.

Reach out to Ellsworth at @rrellswo on Instagram.

Athletic background 

Ellsworth’s journey began at Seton Catholic High School (SCHS). Ellsworth played soccer in the fall and track in the spring. Slowly, running became Ellsworth’s passion, and he replaced soccer with cross country.

Ellsworth’s SCHS Sports Timeline

YearFallSpring
FreshmanSoccer
SophomoreSoccerTrack
JuniorCross CountryTrack
SeniorCross CountryTrack

Originally, Ellsworth was not interested in competing in collegiate sports, so he did not pursue traditional recruitment efforts in high school. Instead, he decided to continue cross country during the summer after high school graduation. Cross country would give him a healthy break from school. It would also provide an opportunity to make new connections and continue his passion for competitive running.

Recruitment

In June of 2018, Ellsworth contacted RIT’s cross country coach to ask about the time commitment and training intensity. He got a response in July, which detailed recruitment information and timing statistics.

From these initial emails, Ellsworth realized he was unprepared to compete on the cross country team. As a result, he developed a training plan. 

At the beginning of the summer, Ellsworth began running 25 miles per week and planned on slowly increasing his mileage weekly. By August, Ellsworth was running 50 miles per week. In general, his runs lasted around an hour. He made sure to include duration and speed practice each week.

This training was strenuous, but he figured that his efforts would pay off during tryouts.

Tryouts

Cross country tryouts last for around two weeks, and the fastest 28 athletes make the team. Unlike most varsity sports, cross country hosts tryouts annually in the fall. There are two reasons for this. First, when athletes do not train over the summer, they hold the team back in the fall. Fall tryouts serve as a motivator to keep training and ensure merit for each spot on the team. Another reason is that coaches and walk-on athletes are unsure of new recruits’ performance and competition. In other words, annual tryouts reassess athletes’ performances and provide walk-ons multiple attempts to join the team.

Ellsworth describes freshman-year tryouts as the most physically intense part of the semester because of the adjustment to collegiate-level training. However, tryouts become much easier as students progress in their athletic careers because they understand expectations and training requirements.

“Many walk-on athletes are at a disadvantage because they lack previous training, but walk-ons will succeed if they keep up with training. If a student gets cut, we encourage them to try out again. Most students significantly improve if they continue training.” 

Typical tryouts

According to Ellsworth, tryouts do not cause tension on the team. Only a few people get cut; most are inexperienced freshmen, who usually make the team the following year if they train on the varsity track team in the Spring.

Tryouts consist of two weeks of practice, ending in a 5k team-wide race. The coach will select the fastest fifteen to twenty students to make the team. The students who did not make the team continue training for another week. Then, another race between the students who did not make the team determines who fills the remaining spots.

How to make the team

In general, making the team is the hardest step in the tryout process due to knowledge barriers and training adjustments. Ellsworth firmly believes that summer training determines whether someone will make the varsity team. Ellsworth recommends that “students talk to their prospective coach to develop a training schedule to prepare for tryouts.”

Did not make the team? 

There are 28 spots on RIT’s varsity cross country teams, so it is difficult for students to make the team during their first tryouts. Furthermore, freshmen walk-ons often have difficulty adjusting to varsity athletics. This results in cutting more Freshmen in comparison to other year-levels.

Many students cut from RIT’s cross country team train on RIT’s varsity track team. RIT’s track team has fifty spots,* making it easier to get on the team as a walk-on. After students run track for a year, they try out for cross country again, and hopefully, make the team. 

Ellsworth notes that if a student is cut from the cross country team and is not interested in track, they should work with their coach to develop a training strategy if they want to try out for cross country in the future.

* There is no limit to how many spots are available on the track and field team. 

Social atmosphere

Division III colleges are not allowed to offer scholarships. In other words, Division III athletes do not risk losing scholarship money due to injuries or performance. Furthermore, many Division III athletes plan on pursuing careers independent of their athletic performance (i.e., engineering, computing, medicine, etc.). As a result, Division III athletes often strive for and promote academic success rather than focus entirely on their sport. Athletes’ experiences like Ellsworth’s represent how Division III athletics create a well-rounded and holistic college experience.

Ellsworth considers RIT’s varsity cross country team welcoming to first-time, walk-on, and experienced athletes.

Ellsworth was not judged for being a walk-on athlete rather than a traditional recruit. He notes that the cross country team has an inclusive and encouraging attitude towards everyone. Furthermore, Ellsworth states that “most students in Division III athletics participate because they enjoy the sport, want to continue something they enjoy, and like a bit of competition.”

In other words, RIT’s cross country team lacks the elitism often associated with varsity sports teams. This helps walk-ons of all skill levels feel accepted and appreciated.

Overall, Ellsworth’s experience exemplifies that the team provides a supportive but challenging environment for all athletes to improve their skills.

Outside of practice 

Many athletes on the cross country team live and socialize together, including group training, dinners, and other casual events. They often chat in the locker room or get lunch between classes.

Even people who are cut from the team or quit still hang out with the team. This exemplifies the welcoming and inclusive environment RIT’s cross country team promotes.

School-life balance 

As a Computer Engineering major, Ellsworth needs to be diligent to complete his assignments. When Ellsworth told his coach he is a Computer Engineering student, his coach said, “wow, this will be difficult for you.” As a result, Ellsworth believes students should prepare for the time commitment and fatigue of varsity athletics if their major is famous for being difficult and time-consuming (i.e., Computer Engineering, Physics, Computer Science, or Physician Assistant).

In general, collegiate athletics require a significant time commitment, especially at the varsity level. However, if you do not join many clubs, varsity athletics will fill that time. Varsity sports are for college students, and thus, will work around their busy schedules. As a result, participating in varsity sports does not mean students’ GPAs will tank.

However, when students do not take the proper precautions—decreasing club involvement and completing homework by the due date—varsity sports can interfere with their academics.

One trick Ellsworth uses to maintain a school-life balance is spreading out his STEM classes. STEM classes are often more difficult and time-consuming than other classes. As a result, limiting STEM classes with general education requirements or free electives lightens students’ workload significantly. Furthermore, many students, including Ellsworth, find that non-STEM classes require less effort to achieve high marks. In other words, many students can skim through those classes because they are not as hard.

Another trick Ellsworth uses is scheduling time to complete homework and sleep. Recovering from sports requires physical and mental rest. Scheduling time for sleep ensures that he can perform well physically and academically. Furthermore, Ellsworth schedules time to complete assignments when he knows he will not be fatigued; this helps him maintain his GPA. 

Advice

Ellsworth did not think any part of the walk-on process was particularly difficult or easy. However, he offers great advice for prospective athletes:

  1. Independently train year-round, especially during the summer.
  2. Contact the coach before the season starts to discuss expectations and requirements. 
  3. Ask yourself, “do you really want to do this? Am I willing to put in the time and effort?” 
  4. Do research and develop a training plan.
    • Ellsworth notes that he was not very fast in high school, so he had to train extensively to make the varsity team at RIT. He states that “once students join the team, they should be fine if they train regularly. Furthermore, they will learn more about training, rest, etc., making long-term training sustainable and productive.”
  5. Do a variety of activities. 
    • Many students use sports to take a break from school, meet new people, and improve their health. Cross country is not for everyone, but RIT has hundreds of activities to explore. Join some extracurricular activities to add variety and excitement to college life.

Training intensity 

According to Ellsworth, “training is hard because it is training. The only time I am pushing myself to an extreme that hurts is when I am racing.” He continues, “in general, collegiate training is much different than high school training, at least it was for me. I can see significant progress in my abilities. For example, freshman training at RIT was very difficult for me, but I handled sophomore training, which is a bit harder, very well.”

Weekly training schedule 

After tryouts, the varsity cross country team does not physically meet for practice every day. There will usually be at least one day per week with no official practice. On days where the team does not formally meet, they complete daily runs assigned by the coach. 

Then, the team usually races on Saturdays. Races are eight kilometers long, and not every athlete will attend each race. Faster runners will compete in more races, but the number of races each athlete will run is undetermined.

If the team does not race on Saturday, they meet on Sunday for a long run. These runs usually span from eighty to one hundred minutes. Freshmen usually run a shorter amount because they are more prone to overuse injuries and often need help adapting to daily running.

Conclusion

In summary, Ellsworth’s experience represents how Division III athletics create a well-rounded and holistic college experience. His experience shows that Division III athletics provides a great break from school and ample networking opportunities.

I want to thank Ellsworth for taking the time to meet with me and for providing thoughtful feedback throughout the article’s development.

Reach out to Ellsworth at @rrellswo on Instagram.