Long Island XC & Assistant T/F
2021 Northeast Conference cross country Coach of the Year Chris Sauer has presided over the transformation of the distance events at Long Island University since his arrival in 2019.
The middle- and long-distance events have broken 13 school records, including nearly every record on the women’s side. The distance group has gone from averaging fewer than nine points per NEC Track & Field Championships to averaging more than 55 points per championship during the last three years. The Sharks scored 169 points during the 2021-22 academic year.
The 2021 cross country season was a historic one for the program. The women’s team earned a runner-up finish in the NEC, marking its best finish since 1988. The achievement also made the Sharks the most-improved team in the conference for the second year in a row, after leaping from 10th to fifth in 2020. This group was led by grad transfer Kelly Iocca, who was the NEC runner-up individually and set the school record in the 6K with her fifth-place finish at the prestigious Paul Short Invitational. She was joined by four All-NEC finishers that year, with the women finishing second, fourth, sixth, 11th and 24th in the championship that season.
The men also saw one of their best seasons in recent history, with Elyas Ayyoub leading the team to a seventh-place finish. As a true freshman, Ayyoub was able to place third overall and earn first-team All-NEC honors. Ayyoub, along with Josephine Critchley, received Cross Country Rookie of the Year awards for their third- and 11th-place finishes, respectively. The year continued with a stellar indoor season for both squads. The men had their best performance ever recorded for the distance events at the NEC Championship by winning the 800m (Lucas Fernandez), 3K (Ayyoub) and 5K (Ayyoub), and finishing runner-up in the mile (Jonathan Gonzalez).
These performances helped bring in more than a third of the points that led to a top-three team finish. Ayyoub completed the NEC Championship as Freshman of the Meet, Distance runner of the Meet and MVP of the Meet while bringing in 20 points with his two gold-medal finishes. The women duplicated that success by scoring in every distance event available. Their 45 points represented nearly half of the 92 points that gave the women’s team another top-three finish.
The season also included several school records including:
DMR – 12:00.08 (Alexandra Smith, Tara Hernandez, Ainhoa Brea, Iocca)
Mile – 4:56.77 (Smith)
3000m – 9:56.98 (Smith)
5000m – 17:29.32 (Iocca)
Following the indoor season, the Sharks enjoyed more records fall and titles won during the outdoor season.
Ayyoub again captured Rookie of the Meet after scoring in the 4x800m and 1500m and winning the 5000m. Other podium finishes included Lucas Fernandez (800m), Jonathan Gonzalez (1500m) and Bryan Villafuerte (3000m steeplechase).
On the women’s side, Iocca broke record after record and earned the first-ever NCAA Regional appearance for a woman LIU distance runner. Her 10:07.30 in the 30000m steeplechase made her the 42nd-ranked runner in the country. Her teammates broke another seven school records, including:
Women’s 1500m – 4:33.99 (Smith)
Women’s 3000m steeplechase – 10:16.11 (Iocca)
Women’s 5000m – 17:37.41 (Brea)
Women’s 5000m – 17:15.78 (Smith)
Women’s 5000m – 16:47.70 (Iocca)
Women’s 3000m steeplechase – 10:07.30 (Iocca)
Women’s 3000m – 10:08.18 (Brea)
The record-setting season garnered an NEC runner-up title for the women, aided by the 46 points scored in the distance events.
The 2020-21 year was sidetracked by COVID-19, but the Sharks managed a few highlights during the abridged season. The winter season included the NEC Cross Country Championship in place of indoor track and field. And the women had two of their highest individual and team finishes, with Ralitsa Mihaylova and Smith earning the first All-NEC honors ever as Sharks. The two also helped their team to being the most improved in the conference, jumping from 10th to fifth. Villafuerte also managed All-NEC honors with his 14th-place finish for the men. In the spring, Smith grabbed her first school record, in her 10,000m debut, running 38:28.67. In 2019-20, during Sauer’s inaugural year, much of the emphasis was built on developing student-athletes and recruiting many of the performers who subsequently broke records. His ideal athlete is someone looking to build something that has never been done before. Prior to LIU, Sauer was the head cross country coach at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.
His time there saw school records in the men’s mile, women’s DMR and women’s steeplechase.
He also served as meet director for some of Louisiana’s largest high school meets.
Sauer earned a master’s degree from Northwestern State in sports administration as well as a bachelor’s of science degree from Stony Brook University in biology, with a concentration in neurobiology and physiology. He competed in cross country and track and was part of Stony Brook’s first-ever America East team title in 2012.