Matt Brooker began the 2013-2014 school year knowing it would be one of the craziest yet most exciting times of his life. The Cedarville senior was entering his final year of college running, would be starting full-time work during the second semester and was expecting his first child in March.
Brooker entered his final cross country season looking to improve on his 41st place finish at the 2012 NCAA Division II National Championships. He started the season by winning three of his first four races, including becoming the first Cedarville athlete to win the All-Ohio Championships.
At the NCAA Division II regional meet, a meet he won last year, Brooker finished in a disappointing fourth place, but led the team to qualify for their second consecutive national meet.
At the national meet in Spokane, Wash., Brooker made Cedarville history again by becoming the school’s first NCAA All-American by finishing 28th overall and leading the team to equal its 15th-place team finish from the previous year.
Despite his personal success, Brooker was more excited about the team’s success.
“I may have finished highest, but some of the other guys had better races than me,” Brooker said. “It was really exciting to see some of them run well in their last race.”
The successful cross country campaign boded well for the track season, where Brooker looked to qualify for his first NCAA Indoor National meet and his second NCAA Outdoor National meet.
But Brooker’s final semester brought many changes. According to NCAA regulations, athletes are required to be full-time students, unless they are in their last semester taking a course required for graduation. Brooker had completed all his requirements for graduation except his PACL elective requirement, making him eligible for his final track season even if he took only the one class. He lives with his wife, Hannah, in Yellow Springs while working full-time and taking his class online.
This unconventional college/professional life brought about many challenges for Brooker’s training. He runs during his lunch break and as soon as he gets home after work to keep his mileage up. Without access to a track, he has had to change some of his workouts. Instead of running repeats on a track, he does fartleks and hill workouts at Glen Helen nature preserve in Yellow Springs.
Despite working full-time and finishing school, the biggest challenge for Brooker has been missing his teammates.
“They’re such a great motivation for me,” he said. “I’m inspired by others. Just having other people there working out with me and seeing how hard they’re working motivates me to work harder. It’s hard being alone.”
But he’s not always alone.
“Hannah comes with me sometimes,” Brooker said. “She’s really tough on me. At practice you can talk to Coach Orchard and the other guys to figure out how you’re feeling and decide if you want to do more, but Hannah is just like, ‘Suck it up!’ She’s great.”
Brooker raced only two regular season indoor meets, one at Division II running powerhouse Grand Valley State in Michigan and the other at Division I Penn State. Two meets were all it took for Brooker to post a time fast enough to break the school record and qualify him for the Division II national meet in the 5,000-meter run. Brooker and pole vaulter James Blackwell traveled to North Carolina for the meet, along with a group of coaches. Brooker finished 12th, five places better than his 17th place qualifying mark, with a time of 14:39. Brooker also won the NCCAA Indoor National Championship in the 3,000-meter run earlier in the season.
“Nationals was super fun,” Brooker said. “I didn’t think I would make it, but I ended up getting the last spot with my time. It was really cool to watch James vault, too. I wish I would’ve raced a little better. Maybe I didn’t do enough speed work going into it. But, what’s done is done and all you can do is move forward.”
Looking forward, Brooker said he is excited for what the coming outdoor season holds.
“Training is going really well,” he said. “We’re starting to implement more speed for outdoor so that’s exciting. I’m hoping to qualify for nationals again and hopefully make All-American.”
Brooker said he hopes to continue running after graduating.
“We’ll take that one step at a time,” he said. “I might start trying some half-marathons, maybe some full marathons. With all the age group competitions there are, you never really have to stop competing, so maybe I won’t. I can’t imagine a time in my life where I’m not training really hard and competing.”
Brooker attributes much of his running success to the people around him.
“It’s a group effort,” he said. “I do the work, but Coach puts the workouts together. He’s really patient with me and all my ideas. I’m inspired by what others do. I see them do something and it works, so I try to implement it in my training.”
The other thing Brooker said helps him is his drive to improve.
“After every race I think about what I could’ve done differently with Coach,” Brooker said. “We find the things that worked and the things that didn’t. I never leave a performance satisfied.”
Off the track, Brooker will continue to work for Care Source after graduation. He and Hannah are expecting their first child soon.
“I feel so blessed,” Brooker said. “Running is going well; I have a good job; Hannah is great; our relationship just keeps getting better; and the baby is healthy. Life is really fun and exciting right now. It’s like an adventure. Everything is real.”
Tyler Greenwood is a freshman mechanical engineering major and a sports reporter for Cedars. He can be followed on Twitter at@tgreenwood413.