Sept. 11, 2008
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 7, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2008-09 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — When the Willowbrook (Ill.) High School cross country team desperately needed a runner to finish the season, it called on a short, skinny soccer player as a substitute. It took one experimental competition for that sub — Jesse Luciano — to stop using his feet for kicking and to start using them for running.
His initial efforts on the cross country course lifted Luciano to all-conference accolades and he eventually qualified for the state championship.
“I had a soccer background,” Luciano said. “The cross country team was looking for a fifth runner and someone heard I was pretty fast, so I said I would try it. It was a great experience and that’s when I made the official switch to distance running.”
Luciano finished his high school career by being named most valuable player in cross country three times and once in track and soccer. In cross country, he was all-conference four times and all-state twice. It wasn’t the hills or long golf course straight-aways that slowed him down as a prep as much as injuries.
“One of the biggest things I needed to change coming into college was overcoming injuries,” said Luciano, who placed sixth at state as a senior and 10th as a junior. “That plays a huge part in cross country. That sets you back more so than in any other sport because this is a sport of fitness and you can’t get behind. I’m pretty sure I’ve injured 90 percent of the bones in my feet as well as my knees, shins, hips…everything.”
University of Iowa head cross country coach Larry Wieczorek saw through the ailments and knew he was getting a steal from east of the Mississippi River.
“I felt I got the best guy out of the state of Illinois that year,” Wieczorek said. “Jesse is a super talent who was held back by injuries. He’s an outstanding student, an outstanding kid and a complete runner.”
Injuries have continued to hinder Luciano in college, but to a lesser degree than when he was in high school. After a runner-up finish in the season-opening Hawkeye Invitational at Ashton Cross Country Course on Aug. 29, Luciano is knocking on wood for a healthy fall.
“I don’t want to jinx anything, but I haven’t been injured in 10 months,” Luciano said. “That’s a record, so hopefully this will be my best season yet.”
“It meant a ton to me being all-region. As a freshman, you come in and it’s kind of a mental shock more than anything else. You come in being the top of your class in high school and then you’re running in obscurity in college. Once I got through that, I slowly realized that I could be at the front again. That helped mentally because I saw the front and I was up there, just like I used to be in high school. That was the first step for me getting 15th in regionals.”
UI cross country runner
His steady progression in cross country took him from 45th place as a freshman at the 2006 regional meet to 15th a year ago, when he earned all-region recognition.
“It meant a ton to me being all-region,” Luciano said. “As a freshman, you come in and it’s kind of a mental shock more than anything else. You come in being the top of your class in high school and then you’re running in obscurity in college. Once I got through that, I slowly realized that I could be at the front again. That helped mentally because I saw the front and I was up there, just like I used to be in high school. That was the first step for me getting 15th in regionals.”
And narrowly missing qualification for the national championship. That near-miss last season provided a renewed energy among several of the Hawkeye harriers. Many remained in Iowa City over the summer to train as a pack.
“Basically we had a schedule down and did most of our running on soft surfaces,” Luciano said. “We got a lot of distance in…probably three times as much mileage as I did last summer.”
Luciano exercised his mind — as well as his legs — in the off-season. When he wasn’t jogging around Johnson County, he was taking two classes in pursuit of an accounting degree. The reduced work load in the lecture halls was a welcomed relief.
“It’s nice to be on campus without the academic stress,” said Luciano, an academic all-Big Ten selection. “You can enjoy yourself.”
It also left more time for training. Luciano and his cohorts fed off the group mentality.
“It’s easy to lose motivation when you’re by yourself at home,” Luciano said. “It’s tough to get yourself out there to run alone, especially on those 90 degree days in the summer. When you’re meeting a bunch of guys at 6 o’clock at night, you know you have to go, so it’s never a question in your mind…you just go.”
Luciano is coming into his own as a collegiate performer. He redshirted during the 2008 indoor track season, but during outdoor he established team-best times in the 1,500 (3:51.99), 5,000 (14:27.31) and 10,000 (30:19.92) meter runs. He placed fourth in the Big Ten at 10,000 meters during his inaugural attempt at that distance. Luciano is also mastering the art of Division I collegiate running strategy.
“You’re not going to run away from the field too much in college,” he said. “Every course brings its own set of challenges with the layout and the hills. You always want to keep contact with the lead pack if you think you can be up there, because once they gap you too much, it’s a mental and physical challenge to gain a lot of ground back on someone on a hilly course.”
Luciano usually runs nine times a week with seven afternoon runs as well as complementary morning jaunts on Tuesday and Thursday. That boosts his weekly mileage total to approximately 90.
“If I didn’t run a day I would feel terrible,” Luciano said. “If it’s worth it to you and you want to achieve your goals, all the pain in the world will never stop you.”
During the season-opening meet, the Hawkeye men were three points from a perfect score as they ran away from Texas A&M and Wichita State. Freshman Nick Holmes won the 6-kilometer race in 18-minutes, 33.23-seconds, followed by Lucianao (18:40.03) in second and senior Eric MacTaggart (18:51.05) in third. Sophomore Sam Bailin was fifth and junior Brendan Camplin was seventh.
Last season the Hawkeyes were eighth at the Big Ten Championships and ninth out of 23 teams at the NCAA Midwest Regional. Luciano said the addition of four newcomers could put Iowa in the hunt for several team titles.
“We have some good talent this year,” he said. “(Freshmen) Nick Holmes and Chase Kadlec will come in and help right away. Then we have two other guys — (sophomore) Brian Marchese and (freshman) Mike Marbach — who are diamonds in the rough. With a little refining, they will be good guys contributing in the future. It’s a good group to work with.”
Luciano is willing to sacrifice individual glory for the team’s success. Although his goal is always to be Iowa’s top finisher, he’s content if a teammate passes by.
“We’re all friends, so it doesn’t matter who wins,” Luciano said. “If an Iowa uniform crosses ahead of you, you don’t care who it is. One Iowa guy up there is as good as any other, but obviously there is still that individual pride where you want to be the guy in first.”
Wieczorek thinks the best is yet to come from Luciano.
“He has just scratched the surface,” Wieczorek said. “Jesse is a terrific leader by example and I think he has yet to show what he can do.”