When Sam Merriman crossed the finish line at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships on Saturday, he nabbed All-American honors. But even before that, he’d already earned national recognition: The night prior, Merriman received the Elite 90 award, which goes to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s championships.
Merriman became just the second Case Western Reserve athlete to be named to the Elite 90, the first men’s cross country runner in University Athletic Association history to earn the honor and just one of 15 award winners in all UAA sports history.
Former tennis player Derek Reinbold (CWR ’14) was the first Spartan to earn the award when he won in 2014.
Merriman, a junior, earned the Elite 90 by notching a 4.0 GPA throughout his collegiate career so far.
“It takes an incredible amount of discipline to balance a 4.0 in the classroom and his elite athleticism,” cross country head coach Kathy Lanese said. “He accomplishes it all with finesse and his enthusiasm, mental focus and sense of humor has only enhanced the total experience this season.”
While Merriman, who majors in engineering physics, expected it would be challenging to balance athletics and academics in college, it hasn’t been as difficult as he thought.
“You need physical activity to get you through the day, and you need academics to keep your mind sharp,” he said.
Winning the Elite 90 put Merriman into the right mindset heading into the NCAA Division III Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, the next day.
“Getting that award made me think, ‘I can compete with these people,’” Merriman said.
He finished 21st out of 278 runners, recording a personal-best time of 24:43.5 to beat his previous record of 24:48.2, which he notched at the Inter-Regional Rumble earlier this season.
With the race, Merriman earned All-America status, becoming just the eighth Case Western Reserve University men’s cross country runner in program history to receive the honor.
Prior to heading into the meet, the coaches predicted Merriman would place somewhere in the range of 31-35, just on the cusp of All-American status. In Division III cross country, runners must finish in the top 35 at the championships to be named All-American.
Merriman said being predicted to fall in that range was “nerve-wracking. You don’t want to be 36th.”
He went into the race with experience, having placed 167th overall at last season’s contest. Having witnessed the championship atmosphere once before, he was able to focus on his own race rather than the competition.
“The first time you’re there is really intimidating because you see a lot of good teams,” Merriman said. “You go from running at the top 10 or 20 in every race to being 100 places back, which is pretty intimidating, especially when it’s a national meet.”
Receiving Elite 90 and All-American status caps off a strong season for Merriman, who racked up such honors as:
First place at the All-Ohio Division III Championship;
Third at the 2016 University Athletic Association Championships; and
Seventh place at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Championships.
“Coming in the first couple of weeks of preseason, I didn’t feel so hot,” he said. “But then I kind of keyed in on what it was like to run races and get that feeling again.”
Merriman raced consistently well throughout the season, finishing first among his teammates at each of the six meets this season.
Lanese explained that in the pre-season, she and Merriman discussed what it would take to achieve All-American status, and through each race, he executed the plan to prepare himself for the competition he’d face at the national championships.
“Sam’s season reminded me of a great chapter from a bestselling running book that ends with the potential for an even better sequel,” she said. “He’s only a junior.”
Looking forward to next season, he hopes to stay healthy and make another run at the championship.
“I’ve had a really good improvement curve throughout high school and college, so I’m hoping I keep that movement up and go for a higher place in nationals,” Merriman said.