Sports

UC Riverside cross-country, track athletes don't run from schoolwork

The NCAA and its member institutions often refer to "student-athletes," but the front side of the term isn't often highlighted in a sports section. We asked officials from the Southland's Division I universities to point us toward their best and brightest — the teams that made classroom performance a priority.

Here is what we found at UC Riverside:

The UC Riverside cross-country and track and field program has a nice run going, and that's more than a pun.

The men's teams have been honored by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Assn. with All-Academic status seven consecutive years. The women's teams had a similar streak from 2009-2012.

Achieving academic distinction has become part of the teams' culture.

"Since we have this award going for many years, we want to keep it going," said Irv Ray, Riverside's director of track and field and cross-country. "This is the expectation. This is where the bar is."

Added associate head coach Nate Brown: "No one wants to be the one to break the streak."

That culture starts with Ray, an old-school, no-nonsense director.

"I just don't move the bar down," Ray says of his team's academic standard. "The bar is here and we're either going to clear the bar or we're going to have problems."

The athletes prefer to clear the bar. Seth Totten, a senior on the men's cross-country team, has a 3.7 grade-point average and was the keynote speaker at last year's Big West Conference Scholar-Athlete Awards banquet.

Totten estimates he trains about 35 hours a week, so he follows a regimented schedule. He wakes each morning at 5 and tries to be asleep by 8:30 p.m. so that he is rested. He says he hasn't been to a party in two years.

"I'm really focusing on two things," he said. "I'm here for my athletics and I'm here for school. And you'll hardly ever see me do anything outside of that bubble.

"You're just expected to take care of your business, and getting good grades is part of taking care of business."

Brown guides his athletes by giving seminars on time management to help them balance their duties.

"I'm a fourth-year now so I've gotten the hang of it, but freshman year was hard," senior distance runner Raquel Hefflin said. "As a freshman, it's so different because you're on your own, no one's telling you to do something at this point or that point.

"I love that about our coaches. They want us to do great in both aspects, the class and on the track."

Self-driven students such as Totten and Hefflin set the pace for others, Brown said.

"A lot of it for us is finding motivated students in the first place," he said. "Making sure we get people who can handle the UC curriculum and making sure that . . . they want to get a degree and [are] trying to amass as many of those same people on a team as possible."

And when that happens, well, you go on a nice run.

james.barragan@latimes.com

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