becomes season of firsts
By Jeff Febus
It was a season of firsts for Calvin College senior Jeff Engbers, who hails from Whitinsville, Mass.
In late October, his beloved Boston Red Sox captured their first World Series title since 1918. Later that same week, Engbers helped the Calvin men’s cross country team take first place at the MIAA championship with a perfect score of 15 points, as the Knights became the first team in MIAA cross country history to post perfect scores in back-to-back years at the conference championship.
On November 20, Engbers was the first Calvin finisher at the NCAA III Cross Country Championships, placing 20th with a time of 25:11. His finish earned him NCAA III All-American honors for the first time, and it also helped the Calvin men’s cross country team take first place at the national meet for the second straight year.
“It’s been quite a fall,” admitted Engbers shortly after the national meet. “I know I’ll cherish this year for a long time.”
A highly decorated runner at Whitins-ville Christian High School, Engbers narrowed his college search quickly. “Calvin was the only place I applied to,” said Engbers. “I had a sister and brother who had both graduated from here, and I had a lot of family members living nearby [Calvin]. Calvin had also just won its first national championship, and when I saw the highlight tape of the [national championship] season, I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that.”
When Engbers arrived at Calvin in September 2001, he had high expectations of contributing to Calvin’s team but found himself struggling to even crack the top 10. “Struggle. That’s a good way to describe my freshman year,” said Engbers. “The distances were longer, and the training was harder, and my times were slower than what I had run in high school. Making the jump from high school to collegiate distance running is a big step which a lot of people don’t realize at first, including me.”
At the conclusion of his freshman year at Calvin, Engbers contemplated giving up his running career, but only briefly. “I took a little time off from running after my freshman year,” said Engbers. “It helped me recharge and gain back my desire.”
That desire served as the fuel that allowed him to break into Calvin’s top group. At the 2003 MIAA championships he placed 10th individually and landed a spot on the All-MIAA first team; he followed that with a 31st-place finish at the Great Lakes regional meet, which earned him a spot on the all-region team. A few days after regionals, however, the Calvin coaching staff decided to make a roster change for the national meet, moving Engbers to the alternate position and moving a more veteran runner into Calvin’s top seven. Although he traveled with the team to the national meet in Northfield, Minn., where the Knights took second place, Engbers did not run.
“The decision [by the coaches] was tough to swallow at first, but when I look back on it now, it makes all the sense in the world,” said Engbers. “It was something that I accepted, and it helped me learn a lot, not just about running but about life as a whole."
As a junior, Engbers became a permanent fixture in Calvin’s top seven, again earning a spot on the All-MIAA first team and on the Great Lakes All-Region squad.
His race at the 2003 regional meet reflected his growing maturity not only as a runner but also as a person. Calvin took first place at the regional meet, with a perfect score of 15 points, becoming just the second school in Great Lakes regional history to do so. Calvin's perfect score was due in large part to Engbers. Just over a mile into the race, freshman teammate Tim Finnegan slipped and fell on the muddy turf, falling behind the lead pack. Although running with the leaders, Engbers sacrificed his individual pursuits to fall back and help Finnegan work his way back up among the leaders. Although Engbers lost precious time himself and ultimately finished in 16th place individually and last out of Calvin’s finishers, it paid big dividends for Finnegan and the team. With the aid of Engbers, the freshman was able to work back into the lead pack and then out-sprint a competitor for fifth place at the finish line.
“I look back on that race, and I just smile,” said Calvin men’s cross country coach Brian Diemer. “What Jeff Engbers did in that race was to sacrifice his own personal goals for the good of the team. It’s the mentality that we try to emphasize in our cross country program, and when you see it happen like it did that day with Jeff and Tim, a tear comes to your eye.”
The following week, Calvin captured the national championship with an incredible first-place score of 48 points. Six Calvin runners also earned All-American honors. Engbers was not one of Calvin’s six All-Americans, as he finished 131st overall.
“It was a little disappointing from an individual standpoint, but at the same time, there was no way I could be disappointed with what we did as a team. It was an incredible day for our team and for Calvin College.”
Engbers then made a commitment to make his final year in a Calvin cross country uniform his best. “I elected to stay in Grand Rapids for the entire summer to train with my teammates, and it made all of the difference in the world,” he said. “I had teammates pushing me on to do cross-training workouts in the pool or long runs in the summer heat, and it was great.”
With a strong base of training underneath him, Engbers roared through the 2004 season, placing third at the MIAA jamboree, fourth at the Michigan Inter-collegiates, fourth at the Wisconsin-Oshkosh Invitational and third at the MIAA championship. He followed with a fifth-place finish at the Great Lakes regional meet but had still finished as Calvin’s top man only once throughout the season.
At the national meet, Engbers was Calvin’s top man, powering through the final quarter-mile of the race to finish ahead of a heavy pack of runners.
A physical education major with geo-graphy minor, Engbers has also displayed leadership in the classroom, maintaining a regular spot on the Calvin Dean’s List and twice earning a spot on the MIAA Academic Honor Roll.
This spring, Engbers will turn his attention to the track, where he was a national qualifier in the 1,500-meter run last spring and just missed an All-American berth with a 10th-place finish at the national meet.
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