It’s a story Ben McErlean has heard his father, Tom, tell a number of times to a number of people: back when Ben was a child, not even 5 years old yet, he could be seen running around Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor with other children during his older sister’s softball games, for literally hours, never getting tired once. That sparked Tom to think that maybe a competitive running career could be in the future for young Ben.
That idea culminated on Tuesday when Ben McErlean, the best male runner Pierson has produced in almost six decades, during a ceremony in Pierson High School’s auditorium, officially decided to continue his running career, both cross country and track, at Division I Manhattan College.
“I honestly never really thought or saw myself running in college, but I always imagined myself running on a big stage,” McErlean explained. “Also, I just feel like I have an ability that maybe not a lot of other people have, which is whatever I have put my time into, I have ended up where I wanted to be. And I think that’s just a product of hard work, dedication and commitment.
“I’ve always felt that whatever I do in my life, I’ll end up doing it really big,” he continued. “I don’t wake up every day and say I want to run in the Olympics, but what really pushes me with this sport, at the end of the day, I just want to see what it’s like to be at the next level. I never really thought I’d be running in college, nor did I expect it, but from freshman year going into my senior year, it definitely became more of a reality.”
McErlean technically made Pierson’s varsity cross country team when he was a seventh grader, but didn’t score well on the Tanner Scale, which is used to determine physical maturity and, in many school districts, is the lone determining factor in allowing middle school student-athletes to play varsity athletics. Instead, McErlean ran middle school cross country for two years before eventually reaching varsity his freshman year, which set forth a very successful varsity career.
McErlean’s best season came this past fall when he led Pierson’s boys cross country team to a Suffolk County Class D Championship, in which he won the individual county title for the first time, and was the first Pierson runner to do since Joe Boyle in 1964. Even though there was no state meet this year due to the pandemic, McErlean did technically qualify for it being a county champion, becoming a state qualifier all four years in high school. McErlean was also All-Division twice and All-League all four years on varsity, finishing his senior season as undefeated league champion. McErlean also holds multiple school records on a number of different courses.
That all led McErlean to Manhattan, where he’ll be joining a running program that is led by two well known figures in both the world and national stage of running in Matt Centrowitz, who is the director of cross country and track and field at Manhattan, and Kerri Gallagher, who is the head coach of both men’s and women’s track and cross country programs.
Centrowitz made the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500-meter race in 1976 and then the following Olympic team in 1980, and later set the national 5,000-meter record (13:12) in 1982. He is a four-time national champion in the 5,000-meters, and his son, who goes by the same name, won gold in the 1,500-meter race at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio.
Gallagher has an impressive resume as well, representing the United States in the 1500 meters at the 2015 IAAF World Championships, among many other accolades. It was the resume of both Centrowitz and Gallagher that pushed McErlean to Manhattan, among other things.
“I’ve always wanted to be living in the city, or near the city, since I was real young. It’s been something where I’ve known I belonged there,” he explained. “They have really good academics — graduates have gotten great job offers — and it’s also a smaller school so their teacher-to-student relationship is good and I won’t be learning in a class size of like a hundred other kids.
“Also, historically their program for track and running is really good,” McErlean continued. “The last year or so, they’ve been making a push to restrengthen their program, and in my opinion, the coaching staff there, it can’t get any better. I personally loved to be coached by people who simply have that really great experience, people who went through it themselves. I think it makes it that much easier to trust in the training and is also makes the whole experience of running better and really the whole journey better.”
Pierson boys cross country head coach Joe Amato called McErlean the best runner he’s ever had in his quarter-century of coaching the team and said he’s seen tremendous growth in him, as both an athlete and a person in just over the past year alone. McErlean, who was the team captain, has also said that he’s improved so much over the past few years due to being personally coached by Boyle, Pierson’s last county champ prior to McErlean.
McErlean began working with Boyle exclusively after his sophomore year, when he stopped playing basketball in the winter and started to focus solely on running, both cross country and track during the winter and spring seasons. On top of being one of the best runners to come out of Sag Harbor, Boyle, who now resides in Euless, Texas, where he works in professional asset management and sales, had a very successful career as a runner himself post-high school which eventually allowed him to start the Texas Running Center in 2010, where he’s gone on to train runners from all over the world, including from Kenya and Ethiopia.
Boyle laid out an initial 10-week program specific for McErlean and has since given him “training suggestions.”
“I remember when we first started working together, and he said, ‘If you deviate from my program, just lose my number.’ Like, basically, do no waste my time, and that was a shock for me, [because] he is a super nice guy. But when it got time to get serious, he really just woke me up,” he said. “So that first program kind of built the whole base for me and after he kept giving me training suggestions. When quarantine started last year, I thought with all of the time that I had I would take full advantage of it all and it just brought me to a new level that I never thought I could reach, and then it brought me to another level. Some of the workouts I would do would be so long, so tedious, so hard, but I was able to do it consistently, and as a 16-, 17-year-old, that woke me up and made me realize that I’m a pretty powerful athlete physically.”
Boyle, who is a trained exercise physiologist, said McErlean has had to overcome some physical implications throughout his career, such as painful growth plate issues in his legs that he has seemed to have finally gotten past. He also remarked how much McErlean has improved in the classroom in addition to his running, and that Manhattan really is the perfect fit for him, not only now, but for possible future endeavors as well.
“At this stage, I would say that Manhattan is getting a diamond in the rough,” he said. “I think having someone like Matt Centrowitz around is going to lead to a tremendous situation for Ben, and because Manhattan is such a world-class program, it doesn’t put any limitations on where he can go. When his four years are up at Manhattan, it’s not like he’s just going to stop running.”
McErlean is running track for East Hampton this spring and is hoping to leave a mark on that program before moving on to Manhattan. But it’s his love for running cross country that he thinks is going to propel him going forward.
“Something Coach Boyle always said that has always stuck with me is that a race is two guys fighting neck and neck seeing who can finish first. I just love that visual, and I love how mean of a sport it is,” he said. “If you don’t show up on race day, mentally or physically, you’re just simply going to get your ass kicked. You have to be on your ‘A’ game no matter what, and I don’t think any other sport is like that.”