By Trey Williams
Milligan University distance runner Aaron Jones is thankful his father Skip took him to Turkey Trots on Thanksgiving mornings. So is Milligan coach Chris Layne.
That’s because on another late November day this past fall, Jones finished 11th overall to help propel the Milligan men’s cross country team to a national championship in Vancouver, Washington.
“I’ve been running my whole life,” Jones said. “My dad’s been pushing me into 5Ks since I could walk. He ran, just sort of for fitness, and would train for marathons and such. He would drag me to the Turkey Trot every year when I was a little kid. We’d go out there and it’d be really cold and I’d wear my pajamas under my running gear.”
A sophomore, Jones hit the ground running at Milligan after recording a top-10 finish in the state meet as a senior at Science Hill. He’s won Appalachian Athletic Conference cross country titles each of his first two seasons and been all-region each season. He’s also 2-for-2 on All-America showings in the national championship.
“I think Aaron and I might both be a little surprised that he’s doing things the way he’s doing ‘em now,” Milligan coach Chris Layne said, “but Aaron was really good out of high school. He could’ve gone to a mid-major, he could’ve walked on at a Power 5 (conference program). He was that kind of kid.
“So I knew we had a special young man. But he’s moved the needle probably a little quicker than we would’ve expected.”
There are no shortcuts involved in progressing quickly.
“Ever since I first started meeting with Coach (Layne) and started sort of picking his brain on the way he coaches, I could tell he’s very big-picture oriented,” Jones said. “His scheme’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. He cares about the individual and he definitely sees it as a building over time. It’s about doing the little things and building to a big goal, and that’s something I’ve always been a big proponent of.
“I mean I was a late bloomer. I didn’t have success in running right away. It took time. It took lots of years. I think it’s worked perfect for me.”
Jones and Layne both say the “little things” are big.
“It’s doing your runs, doing intentional work like being good about stretching and ice-bathing,” Jones said. “Just taking care of the little day-to-day things builds up over time.”
Layne says Jones’ passion and work ethic set the tone.
“Aaron just takes care of business,” Layne said. “You never worry about him. He’s the one guy, everyday I’m in my office he’ll come in and say hello because he’s on his way to the training room to just stay on top of things. He’s detail-oriented and he wants to be the best he can be and he loves what he does.”
Nathan Baker (14th), Eli Cramer (20th), Will Stockely (27th) and Jake Crow (58th) rounded out the scoring for Milligan, which also won the women’s national title thanks primarily to the first-place finish of sophomore Alyssa Bearzi.
Both teams knew they were capable of winning national titles, but it’s hard to foresee winning one, much less two.
“We definitely felt the pressure, because to be frank about it, the past few years we’d failed to make that step at the national championship,” Jones said. “We’d gone in maybe not with national championship aspirations, but top 15 or top 10 hopes and fallen short. We were going in with the mindset that it was ours to win if we were ready, but we knew it was not gonna be handed to us.”
Jones isn’t sure if success brings the family atmosphere or vice-versa at Milligan. Probably, he says, it’s a mix of both.
“The culture that’s been built at Milligan is definitely one that’s a brotherhood,” Jones said. “I mean we all love each other. We work together, and in that way we are able to enjoy our success together and it makes us that much better. We’re pushing each other day in, day out in practice. The family vibe definitely contributes to our success.”
National championships instantly transform exhaustion into boundless energy.
“There’s lots of pictures out there of us hugging and jumping all up and down,” Jones said. “We all have the biggest smiles on our faces. The relief and the excitement we all felt whenever we won, that’ll definitely be an image seared in my mind for the rest of my life.”
There could be bigger images left to sear.
“Aaron has the mentality,” Layne said. “He has the passion for the sport. He is starting to develop his range of events. He stepped down all the way to the mile and went 4:17 indoors this early in the season, which is pretty telling of his long-term potential. … For him to win a national title individually before he leaves here is certainly something that is attainable.”
The Milligan traveling rosters for the national championships included Daniel Boone products Natalie Fellers and Lauren Spry, Gabrielle Mardis (Science Hill) and University High alums Ali Burns and Pablo Rivas.