College professors have been know to take sabbaticals. When they return after the hiatus, their teaching is usually stronger than before they left their institution of higher learning.
Youngstown State University junior Eric Rupe ended his sophomore year of cross country, wondering where his distance running would take him after the 2011 season.
Enter Rupe's sabbatical. For college athletes, it's called a redshirt.
He spent all of the 2012 season preparing for this fall.
"I'm so glad I got the whole year to redshirt," said Rupe, a 2010 Maplewood High School graduate. "When you're racing every year, you kind of get to the point where you don't look forward to racing. You're like, 'Oh, I have to race this weekend.' It was kind of mentally draining. When I redshirted, I focused on training. Usually you get to November and you get so sick of training. I got to November and I kept training into December and into all of winter. I didn't take any time off between seasons. I got to train for an entire year.
"When I came back, I missed racing so much I took it for granted. Now, I have a whole different attitude when I approach racing."
That new attitude showed up Thursday when Rupe won the 45th Tommy Evans Invitational at Firestone Metro Park - the first male Penguin to win that race in a time of 20 minutes, 23 seconds.
He's led YSU in the first two meets.
"Anybody who runs 20:23 usually has a good shot to make it to nationals," YSU coach Brian Gorby said. "Most of the guys with that time are right on the bubble making it to nationals when we get to the end of year."
Midway through Thursday's 4-mile race, it seemed as if winning would not be a possibility for Rupe.
"He ran 10:40 and was basically at 50th place and basically ran 9:40 up and down hills, which running up and down hills is amazing. He was doing it as more of a threshold type situation," Gorby said.
After Rupe finished first, Malone's Jarod Williams (20:28), Akron's Clayton Murphy (20:28), Malone's Drew Trusty (20:29) and Kent State's Steve Fischer (20:32) rounded out the top five.
"The race went out really slow, but it started getting faster and faster with each mile," Rupe said. "The whole goal is to get into the lead pack somewhere during the race. I thought I'd die off and be around eighth or so. I got to the lead pack about halfway through. Then it picked up and the kid from Malone started pushing the pace really hard. Then I had to make a decision whether to go with him or sit back comfortable with the pack. That's kind of like how any race is. You're faced with some decision at a point in the race where, 'Do I go with that guy or do I stay comfortable where I'm at?' I decided to go with him. The whole last mile, my legs really hurt. After the race, I was like they hurt because we're going so fast. They weren't hurting so bad.
"The last 400 to 600 to go, I said, 'I might have a shot to win this thing.' If I can hang on to this big hill with about 400 to go. I'm going to go as hard as I can and see if I can get a gap. I went as hard as I could up the hill and got a little bit of a gap. Then I came home and won the thing. I don't know how I did it, but somehow it happened."
When Rupe was a senior at Maplewood, he said he wasn't highly recruited. He decided on the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. After two days down there, he left and headed home - eventually ending up at YSU.
"A lot of schools overlooked him when he was coming back to Ohio," Gorby said.
Rupe remembers two schools in particular. He was reminded every time he went to the Tommy Evans.
"Akron, Kent, they didn't recruit me much," Rupe said. "I kind of always had a little chip on my shoulder. Especially at that meet, I hated getting beat up by Akron and Kent guys. Going into the meet, my goal was always top 10. I thought I'd be right around eighth and that would be pretty good."
It was pretty good Rupe improved his 2011 time in Akron of 21:09. It's no surprise to Gorby, who knows of Rupe's lineage. His father, Ted, is a legendary cross country coach at Maplewood and former world-class road racer. His mother, Michelle, was a two-time qualifier for the Olympic Trials in the marathon in 1984 and 1988. His older brother, Craig, is an assistant cross country coach at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy and was a standout at Akron.
"Eric is his own person," Gorby said. "He's got more wheels that any Rupe I've ever met. They all have the strength and mileage and training and live it, but he's faster than his dad, brother or anybody else."
Eric has run an average of 100 miles a week and more than 1,000 miles in the last 10 weeks. He'll increase his distance to 110 miles the next two weeks and eventually cut back on his training.
It's that training that led to performances like the one he had on Thursday.
"It was surprising because he's been in these situations before," Gorby said. "When he was younger, they'd kick him down and maybe be a little stronger, maybe a little faster. He not only hit the line, he ran through the line, through the chute and back to cheering on his teammate. He's such a good quality kid as a teammate and a leader. He's going to be a phenomenal coach one day. There's no doubt about it. There's no surprise he's the son of Ted and Michelle.
"We're fortunate and blessed to have him."