Women's Cross Country Season Preview
Sept. 12, 2012
SEATTLE - Over the past five years, there's no question that the Washington women's cross country team has ranked among the nation's elites. But last November, when the Huskies were the national runners-up and made a third trip to the podium in the past four years, it was actually the first time on the award stand for all but one of the seven Dawgs that raced that day. So what was sustained success for the program was a first major achievement for six individuals.
Now those six are back, aided by the knowledge of what it takes to contend at nationals, along with the desire to improve upon the stellar 2011 campaign. That experience earned the Huskies the preseason No. 2 national ranking, and as of this week UW moved up to the No. 1 spot, its first time atop the poll since 2009. A void in the lineup left by All-American Christine Babcock will need to be filled, but Washington's returning talent, excellent depth, and potential impact newcomers make this a season of great excitement for Head Coach Greg Metcalf.
"With the influence of Christine Babcock and Mel Lawrence, our group knew the history," says Metcalf, entering his 16th year leading the program. "They knew our team over the last handful of years has been a factor at the NCAA Championships, and they were able to build on that last fall. So I think with last year's experience that our group comes to practice daily with a goal of being on the podium again."
Still, Metcalf, the 2011 Pac-12 Women's Coach of the Year, knows that the lofty early ranking is not worth much, just as it didn't mean much when the Huskies were ranked 24th midway through last year before ending up second.
"This group made a great run at the end of last year," he says. Washington was just eight points shy of the NCAA title last year, as Metcalf says the women "ran aggressive and ran tough. So the expectation with this group is simply to be full of run, and ready to be as good as we can be on Saturday, November 18. It will sort itself out then."
With a couple weeks of training now in the books and the Huskies back from preseason camp on the coast, Metcalf has a good sense on how the summer miles logged have paid off.
"The first few weeks of practice have been great," says Metcalf. "We were more patient with some of our training. Our group comes in healthy, strong, fit and ready to train. I think they're on the same page and excited about what's to come."
It's no secret that the Huskies return one of the best lead duos in the NCAA in juniors Katie Flood and Megan Goethals. The former prep national champions have both continued to develop at Washington into two of the top distance runners in the college ranks. Last fall, Flood was seventh at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and Goethals was 18th. Washington and Iowa State are the only two programs bringing back two top-25 finishers from last year's NCAAs.
But the successes for Flood and Goethals in cross country last year (including the Pac-12 individual title for Flood) paled in comparison to their seasons on the track.
Flood put together the best track season ever for a Husky distance runner, winning the NCAA title at 1,500-meters in front of her hometown Des Moines, Iowa supporters, and anchoring the distance medley relay to a first-ever NCAA title indoors. Goethals was a fraction of a second away from her own NCAA track title, as she took second at 5,000-meters in Des Moines by .03 seconds.
Although it still feels like they just arrived, says Metcalf, Flood and Goethals are now veterans, and All-Americans each multiple times over. What can they do for an encore? Well, to start with, "They are way better than they were a year ago on day one of practice," says Metcalf.
"A year ago, Katie was dealing with mono, Megan was struggling. Now they're coming off Katie winning the NCAA title at 1,500-meters and Megan was three-hundredths of a second from being the NCAA Champion in the 5k. They're both healthy, excited, and their goal is to be better than they were a year ago, and they're excited about what that means for our team. You start with those two right there, that's a nice place to start."
Still a relatively young group, Washington has just two seniors this fall, Lindsay Flanagan and Kayla Evans. Flanagan "was a big question mark" after she missed the outdoor track season recovering from a fractured sacrum caused by a nasty fall, but the Illinois native came back with a great summer according to her coach and is looking very strong. She broke the top-100 at NCAAs last year for the first time and will look to improve upon that.
Lindsay Flanagan is looking for a big senior season after earning All-West Region honors in 2011
Evans has worked her way back into the mix after battling injury during her career, but she also has NCAA experience, having run at the 2009 championships. The Tacoma product from Bellarmine Prep led the group across the finish at the UW-Seattle U Open at the end of August and looks read for a great senior year. "She's all-in right now," said Metcalf. "She's mature and a leader and I'm incredibly excited for her."
Junior Justine Johnson missed most of the outdoor season similar to Flanagan, but also should be fully back and ready to roll this fall. Johnson was been a reliable presence near the front the past two years, twice earning All-West Region honors. She was the fourth Husky finisher at NCAAs last year, in 65th overall, so the top-40 and All-American honors are within her sights. "Justine had a great summer and is fit and healthy and excited for the season to get going. She's someone that just takes to the team aspect of cross country."
Metcalf is also looking for big seasons out of third-year runners Liberty Miller and Chelsea Orr, both of whom had excellent seasons on the track. Miller just missed a trip to the NCAA finals in the 5,000-meters, placing 15th at the West Prelims, and she scored at Pac-12s in her first ever 10k, taking seventh. Orr was the lead runner for the NCAA Champion DMR team indoors, then advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals outdoors at 1,500-meters, running a PR of 4:19.21.
"Libby had a great track season and a great summer and she is a leading candidate to round out our top-five," says Metcalf. "The role that she plays, on a piece of paper maybe she's our five, and if so I like where we are. She's a tough, hard-nosed veteran now that's been to the NCAA Championships two times already."
Orr, the former walk-on from Sammamish, was solid in her first cross country season last year, "but we have pretty high expectations for her," Metcalf admits. "She's the kind of athlete that if we put her in the right place and she's allowed to go run hard over the final third of a cross country meet, she can and I believe will impact our team."
Then there's the top newcomer from last year, Eleanor Fulton, who will look to continue to improve and maintain her spot that she locked down in the top-seven a year ago. Fulton was 21st at Pac-12s last year and the No. 6 Husky at nationals. A strong track season was shortened by a heel bruise suffered in a steeplechase run at Washington State, which cost her some training time this summer.
Still, Metcalf believes that the Lone Tree, Colo. native is on the right path, and that "if we play our cards right, Eleanor can really be a factor at the end of the fall. We just need to be patient with her as we get into the season. She ran in our top-seven last year, and even having missed time she's better than a year ago."
Taking the top-seven returners as a whole, "I keep saying it, but every one of them are at least a little farther along than they were a year ago, but that's how this should work."
Several more returners add exceptional depth to the Husky roster. During the NCAA Championship season in 2008, UW had Michelle Turner finish 15th at West Regionals and then sit out nationals as Washington's No. 8 runner. That type of depth is practically unheard of, but the Huskies could have some great runners at the eight through ten spots who will look to run at Pac-12s or step into the top-seven whenever needed.
"Breanna Huschka was dedicated this summer and this is as confident as I've seen her," says Metcalf of the junior from Everett. "I think she's in contention for one of our spots on our Pac-12 team."
Another runner labeled "something of a wild card" is sophomore Anna Dailey, who donned the UW jersey for the first time at the UW-WSU dual meet last track season and ran a strong 3k. "Anna ran very well without having done much training. Which shows that she is very gifted. I trust effort, and she's going to put out great effort. I'm excited about her potential impact."
The Huskies captured a fourth straight West Regional title in 2011; they will go for five in Seattle on Nov. 9
Freshmen a year ago, Joelle Amaral and Erin Johnson both showed a lot of potential as they ran on the travel squad a couple times each, with Johnson running at Pac-12s. "They're getting better all the time," but could potentially redshirt this fall since they were pressed into competition last year, Metcalf says.
Out of the mid-distance group that includes Amy Before, Chloe Curtis, Baylee Mires, Laura Schmitt, Christine Sonners, and newcomers Brittany Bennett and Pearl Terry, Metcalf thinks Mires could step up and do some damage at the longer distances. The Spokane native is another piece of the NCAA title-winning DMR, running the 800m leg. She did take fifth twice at the Washington 4A state cross country meet, so she is not a stranger to the longer runs. Says Metcalf, "If we choose our battles with Baylee she's got scary potential."
Two more returners coming back from the injury bug are Megan Morgan and Phoebe Merritt. Both are on the road to recovery already and Metcalf says the two "are going to bust their butts to help this team any way they can."
Freshmen have regularly made huge impacts during Washington's stellar five-year run, so don't be surprised if another fresh face jumps right into the lead pack. The likely candidate this year is Seattle's own Maddie Meyers, one of the most decorated distance runners to come out of the state in many years, and the one runner in the class of 2012 that the Huskies "had to have."
Meyers basically won everything she entered at the 1A state level for the past four years, winning a total of 15 Washington state titles, including all four cross country titles. She also made an impact nationally, winning the 2010 Jim Ryun Dream Mile (with Flood and Fulton both in the race) and taking second in the mile at 2010 New Balance Nationals, and Meyers also had international success, setting the U.S. junior record in the 2,000m steeplechase and taking sixth for Team USA at the 2011 World Youth Championships in France.
"Maddie Meyers, what I've seen in two weeks, she would make our team," Metcalf says emphatically. "She's been an awesome addition to our group. I'm excited to see where this season goes with her. It's been a smooth transition, like she's been here for years. She's been everything we hoped for and maybe even more."
Despite limited cross country experience in high school, Metcalf has been impressed by the early showing from C.J. Smith, who hails from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Also in the fold is former Washington prep champion Annie Moore, a Bellingham native who is returning close to home after spending the past two seasons at Montana.
Watch for many of these women to use the Sundodger Invite this weekend as a stepping stone, as most of UW's top returners are expected to sit out. The first run for the full team will be the Greater Louisville Classic on Sept. 29, which will let the women take a first look at the site of this year's NCAA Championships, which has left Terre Haute for the first time in several years. Next, the women will look to defend their title at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational on Oct. 13. UCLA hosts the Pac-12 Championships on Oct. 27, where Flood is the defending individual champ.
Washington will look to be in full swing on Nov. 9, when the Huskies host the NCAA West Regional Championships at Jefferson Park Golf Course. The women have won four consecutive regional titles, and will look to extend that streak and punch their ticket back to nationals. Everything culminates in the 6,000-meter run on Saturday, Nov. 17, in Louisville, as the Huskies will seek another podium finish, and add to their growing tradition.