Courtesy: Spencer Farrin (Pullman, Wash.)
|Women's XC tries for history|
MOSCOW, Idaho – University of Idaho women’s cross country is well aware of target on each runner’s back as the Vandal women come into Saturday’s Western Athletic Conference Championship.
Idaho has won the last two WAC women’s team crowns and four total in the school’s seven previous seasons in the league. Since Idaho joined the WAC in 2005, the conference meet has featured either a Vandal team title or a Vandal individual champion every year except one.
It comes as no big surprise, then, that the Vandal women were picked first earlier this week in the WAC Pre-Championship Coaches Poll, with five of the nine first-place votes.
Idaho director of track and field/cross country Wayne Phipps said that his team learned two key lessons about “championship aura” when a young Vandal group won in 2010 with several freshmen playing important roles.
He said 2009 team champion New Mexico State entered that meet with confidence and with a heavy dose of respect from all the other WAC teams.
“They kind of had a bit of an aura about them because they had really dominated the year before,” Phipps said about NM State. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to beat them while they have the Schultz twins.’
“Once we did beat them, I think our girls realized how good they are.”
That realization gave Idaho’s women the same confidence going into the 2011 WAC Championship at Honolulu, Hawai`i, where the Vandals put four runners in the top eight and cruised to a team win. Phipps said the Vandal women have the same level of confidence and expectation, as well as the understanding that everyone else is equally motivated to claim the title.
“They know exactly what it takes to win and they’ve been in that situation a number of times,” Phipps said. “We’ve talked from day one about how nobody is going to make it easy on us. It’s going to be a battle, for sure. New Mexico State is very good, Utah State is always tough and UTSA has a lot of depth, so it’s going to be a very tough challenge for us.”
This Idaho women’s group has no seniors, but that doesn’t mean the Vandals lack experience. The team is led by a core group of four juniors who have tasted nothing but success at WAC Championship meets.
Hannah Kiser, a 2011 NCAA Cross Country Championships qualifier and indoor track and field All-American, is the face of the group, but Alycia Butterworth, Emily Paradis and Holly Browning (Stanton) are each First-Team All-WAC performers who have continued to make huge strides in the last two seasons.
Kiser is a six-time WAC individual champion who is undefeated against non-Vandal WAC competition in track and field, but she has never claimed an individual cross country crown. She said that’s No. 2 on her weekend checklist behind winning the team trophy.
Add in that Kiser missed the 2012 outdoor track and field season with respiratory issues, and you’ve got an athlete on a mission.
“I know I’m really fit and that I’ve been fit for a long time,” Kiser said. “It’s exciting to see all that work I’ve put in for the last eight months hopefully lead to a cross country win, because I haven’t done that yet and I’d love to check that off my list.”
Added Phipps, “I think her motivation and energy levels are probably off the charts. She was in Moscow all summer long and never missed a run. She has done absolutely everything she can and right now she’s probably the healthiest she’s ever been.”
Overcoming adversity is a bit of a theme for this year’s junior group. Paradis broke out last season with a fourth-place individual finish at the WAC cross country meet, but missed indoor and outdoor track with a combination of injury and a diagnosis of anemia. Butterworth turned into one of Idaho’s most reliable distance performers last year from cross country through outdoor track and field, but struggled with illness at the start of the cross country season.
“We’ve battled through a little more adversity than maybe we had in the past couple years, but I think we’re in a very good place right now,” Phipps said. “We’re very healthy and very fit and with those two things, I think they’re very confident and very excited about competing.”
The all-important No. 5 finisher is an open spot on the Vandal rotation, but not for lack of a qualified runner. In fact, it’s actually the opposite.
Walk-on freshman Halie Raudenbush has been the team’s top freshman finisher four times, while redshirt frosh Abby Larson and true freshmen Marquita Palmer and Stephanie Rexus have consistently improved and finished in the fifth and sixth spots.
Phipps said he’s very comfortable with that group and its ability to round out the five scoring positions, as well as the sixth and seventh spot to displace other teams’ scoring chances.
“I guess we have a ‘by-committee’ approach to that fifth spot,” Phipps said. “We have five very, very good freshmen, any one of whom can be an all-conference runner for us, so I’m in a good spot mentally and I’m excited to see them compete this weekend.”
If there was any question about expectations and standards for the freshmen, Idaho’s junior group made that clear from the very beginning.
“At the beginning of the season, we pretty much told them straight up that we expected to win, so they needed to train hard and be dedicated to the program,” Kiser said. “They have done everything the right way in practice and aside from running.”
The freshman have taken that message to heart so strongly that Phipps said he’s had to step in at times and make sure they don’t overdo it in practice.
“I’ve actually had to rein them in sometimes and make sure they’re actually taking easy days easy,” Phipps said. “They have a tendency at times to work a little too hard.”
Kiser said also that she is reminded of her freshman season when the team was so even in practice that the runners all felt comfortable in race situations with teammates around them.
“They run in a pack during practice, so doing that in a race will be good for them for their nerves,” she said. “They won’t be running alone in a race, and then if one person starts to pick it up, the rest of them can be confident that they have the ability to do that, too.”
The women’s 5,000-meter race will start at 6 a.m. (PT) in Lincoln Parish Park at Ruston, La., hosted by Louisiana Tech.