Iona's cross country team is a global winner

By recruiting worldwide, tiny Iona has finished in the top 10 in cross country every year for the past decade. Courtesy of ICGaels.com

Competing in a Division I sport is tough. Doing so with just 3,100 undergrads is even tougher.

Once in a while, a small school makes a good run and is injected into the conversation, but Iona College's cross country team isn't just an occasional champion.

For the past decade, only two programs have finished in the top 10 in XC every year: Iona and the University of Wisconsin, a school with 14 times more potential runners than the Gaels of New Rochelle, N.Y., just outside New York City.

Last week, for the 22nd straight year, Iona's men's team won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship.

Why are the Gaels so dominant?

The answer is in knowing the competition and finding out where they aren't recruiting. The large Division I schools pull runners from across the States.

Iona casts a larger net: the world.

Iona's 2012 XC team, currently ranked fourth in the nation, has seven international runners hailing from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Canada.

Last year's team had nine international runners, and the seven runners who placed ninth at nationals came from seven countries: Australia, Ireland, England, Kenya, Canada, Sweden and the U.S.

The Gaels embrace their recruiting abroad so much that they unofficially rally behind a slogan of "Assembled in the USA."

Meanwhile, the combined rosters for Oregon, Stanford, Texas, Arkansas and Indiana have just two international recruits.

High-profile schools such as Stanford typically have little problem pulling the best American runners without doing heavy recruiting outside the U.S.

By finding and exploiting an international niche in the system with its worldwide approach, Iona has become a small-market success story in sports.

"I wouldn't say the program is like Billy Beane in 'Moneyball,'" Iona coach Ricardo Santos said. "It's more like Jonah Hill's character -- one of Beane's disciples that brought his ideas to other clubs and succeeded."

If Iona is Jonah Hill, Providence is Billy Beane. Follow the thread: The Canadian-born Santos ran for Iona from 1995 to 2000 under then-coach Mick Byrne. Santos says the Gaels' success story starts with Byrne taking the concept of looking abroad for talent from his Irish-born coach at Providence College.

Providence and Villanova were the original teams to look abroad, but their focus was far more on Europe. Iona goes to all corners of the earth to find talent that fits with the program.

Byrne added to the equation by focusing the team's concentration on the mid-to-long distance track races such as the 800-meter, mile and 2-mile, thereby creating, in essence, a specialty program.

Making it to nationals in 1993 put the team on the map; by the late ’90s, the team's reputation started to build on itself, making recruiting easier both at home and abroad.

For Santos, Byrne's early work in foreign countries has an effect on his recruiting pitches today.

"It's getting harder as the bigger schools start to increasingly look overseas as well, but we still get great international kids because they know Iona, they know we've recruited internationally for years, and they can trust us and what we're about and what we're going to continue to do," Santos said.

Going up against the nation's biggest universities as a tiny school isn't so daunting when you have the world behind you.