Sept. 13, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Bridget Franek has no doubt that in her mind that Penn State is where she is supposed to be.
After looking at Villanova, Washington and Oregon, Franek decided on making the short trip from her home in Hiram, Ohio to State College, and since hasn't thought twice about her decision.
"I like the climate here and after being here a year, it puts no doubt in my mind that this is where I'm supposed to be," Franek said.
Now a sophomore, the Penn State cross country standout is poised to resume just where she left off in her freshman campaign. In 2006-07, Franek was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in outdoor track and owns three individual conference track titles and several school records to her name. She was the lone freshman distance runner last year to qualify for each of the three NCAA Championships in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field.
In addition to participating in all three NCAA events last year, she recorded top-five cross country finishes at the Lock Haven Invitational, Spiked Shoe Invitational, Penn State National and NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional. A Big Ten Runner of the Week honoree last season, Franek took 17th at the conference championships and was just the second freshman to cross the finish line. Her cross country bio on the Penn State website refers to her first season as "arguably the best freshman campaign in program history."
"Last year was very much about gaining experience," said Franek. "I didn't do as well as I wanted in the bigger meets, but it was important to get that experience under my belt. I think this year I will only benefit from that."
The Nittany Lion sophomore is off to an impressive start. Franek successfully defended her title at the season-opening Lock Haven Invitational on Aug. 31. She dominated the field over the 4,000-meter course, finishing in 14:03.73 - nearly 20 seconds faster than the second-place runner. For her efforts, she earned co-Big Ten Runner of the Week with Michigan State's Alissa McKaig.
Franek called her second career weekly accolade a "huge honor" and was quick to point out how many good runners there are in the conference this year, which is indicated in the most recent USTFCCCA Top 30 Poll. Six Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 15, while five make up half of the nation's top 10. Michigan is ranked second overall, followed by No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 6 Illinois, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 14 Iowa.
In fact, Franek admitted it wasn't until she began competing at Penn State that she understood what it meant to run in the Big Ten.
"Now that I'm here, I realize how important it is to compete in the Big Ten" she said. "I never really had an appreciation how just how prestigious the Big Ten was, but after attending some of the meets and seeing how they were run, you really realize how lucky you are to be a part of this conference."
When Franek is not competing during the school year, she enjoys returning home to Hiram to spend time with her family. This is not an indoors family though. It's Franek tradition to spend time together, but to spend that time outdoors.
This past summer, Franek traded her sneakers for oars and canoed for three days with her family down a 70-mile track of the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio.
"We love to do hikes or bike rides, but this summer we wanted to head down the river that goes right through our town. Being there in the outdoors really makes me stronger. The experiences that I have had with my family have really made me mentally tough."
That has been a good thing, because Franek notes that running is all mental. Often times in cross country, teams will compete in five or fewer regular-season events prior to the conference championship, which leaves one or two weeks of competitive downtime. That is the case with Penn State this season. The Nittany Lion squad will travel to the Iona Meet of Champions (Sept. 22) and host the Spike Shoe Invitational (Sept. 29) and Penn State National Invitational (Oct. 12), before traveling to Ohio State for the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 28.
Franek feels that cross country is a sport where it is important to get into a rhythm, but also points out that running is also something each person has to take an ownership in.
That's why following her canoe trip, Franek and her family traveled to California to meet up with her roommate and fellow PSU runner Jessica Babcock. Also a sophomore this season, Babcock and her family took the Franeks up to Mammoth Lakes, just 30 miles south of Yosemite National Park, for a little R and R and R - rest, relaxation and running. While there was family time to be spent, there was also training to be done. Not only did Franek and Babcock take to the trails in the high altitude, but they also took a little ownership like all runners do to prepare themselves for the upcoming season.
So perhaps it shouldn't come as a shock when Franek and the rest of the Nittany Lion squad took ownership in the season's first meet, a dominating 167-25 win over Lock Haven.
"The goal was to get out and get a feel for where we are and I think we are a little more focused as a team right now," Franek said. "I felt (the meet) went well for me personally, but we looked solid as a team and I think it is going to be a good season for us. We have had a lot of girls that have stepped up and I think we'll be more competitive in the bigger meets this year."
Now it's just a matter of keeping with that rhythm and continuing to take ownership.