Women's Cross Country Season Preview
Sept. 18, 2009
Rebuilding or reloading are often seen as the two paths open to championship level teams in any sport. Can a team replicate its success with the same core group or will it need to get back in line and establish a new identity. Washington's women's cross country team was unquestionably the finest team in the nation last year, and as the unanimous preseason No. 1 in 2009, it is clear that reloading is the expectation. That's all well and good, but head coach Greg Metcalf is expecting the program to actually improve.
"I've always believed that our success during the fall is dictated by the last track season, and saying that if you just look at track times for our group on the first day of practice this year versus the first day of practice last year, it's not even close," says Metcalf. "We are way better now."
That's surely an alarming notion for UW's competition, as the Huskies were crowned National Champions in 2008, placing all seven runners in the top-51 and winning by a 52 point spread over Oregon. Washington also had a run for the ages at the Pac-10 Championships, a performance that could live on in memories longer than the national meet, when it swept the top six spots to record the first perfect score in conference history. That figures to be a once in a lifetime display, but the Huskies still plan to be an improved team, and with their top four runners returning this season, it's easy to see how.
Washington's top-four runners in 2008 are all back. Four All-Americans, four All-Pac-10 First Teamers, and as Coach Metcalf sees it, four potential champions.
"I really believe that in Katie Follett, Christine Babcock, Mel Lawrence and Kendra Schaaf, we have four women that can win the Pac-10 Cross Country individual championship. That says that our team's pretty good. They're all ready to rock and roll and do great things."
Washington's leap from a program-best 8th-place finish in 2007 to its first national championship a year later was thanks in large part to the fearless efforts of two freshmen just a few months removed from their high school graduation gowns. Kendra Schaaf (Craven, Saskatchewan) and Christine Babcock (Irvine, Calif.) were easily the two top freshmen in the country last year, and the only two that earned All-America honors. Schaaf had big wins at the Sundodger and Auburn Invitationals, and then turned in an exquisite run at Pac-10's, breaking the course and meet record to win by 30 seconds over her teammates. Babcock though took the lead at nationals, placing seventh overall, with Schaaf close behind in 12th. Schaaf was named Pac-10 Athlete of the Year while Babcock was honored as Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year.
Schaaf was the only eligible member of UW's top-seven that redshirted the following track season. A couple bumps and bruises at inopportune times forced her to pull out of a few meets and it was decided she should wait a year to enjoy a full track season. But she showed she was fully healthy over the summer, running multiple PR's in Canada, including a 15:52 time in the 5k at the Canadian Senior Championships, where she placed second.
"Kendra was a superstar from day one for us," says Metcalf. "She goes and takes 12th at NCAA's and I would say could have placed top-10 but battled some freshman nerves and that's natural. She had a very active summer and showed up at the first day of practice better than she was one year ago. You can just tell. She's more confident and calm, and that bodes well for her coming season."
Babcock was known more for her record-breaking times on the track in high school, so her cross country excellence was all the more impressive. She followed that up with an outstanding track season, including an indoor All-America honor for the distance medley relay, and PR's of 2:06, 4:16, and 4:38 in the 800, 1500, and mile runs. Babcock ended her rookie season qualifying for the finals of the 1500m at NCAA Outdoors.
"Christine had great success in high school cross country but last year to be 7th at NCAA's as a true freshman was awesome. She had a great, great year," says Metcalf. "Last year we started her training a little later in the summer, so this year I think she's had a more complete summer. She's run a little more volume and watching her the first couple weeks she's very fit and focused. Christine's kind of misleading, you sit and talk to her and she doesn't exude the typical attitude of a great distance runner, but when they fire the gun her racing instincts are as good as any athlete we've ever had. She's well prepared to go improve upon her finish last year."
Also running second or third at every race for UW last year was Mel Lawrence, now entering her junior season. The Reno, Nev. native was the Pac-10 runner-up and took 25th at NCAA's, a major improvement over her freshman season when she was 117th. Lawrence had arguably the best track season of any woman on the team as just a redshirt freshman on the track. She set the indoor school record in the 3k at 9:08, and ran 15:50 in the 5k outdoors. But where she really took off was in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an event she won a US Junior title in as a prep. Lawrence won the Pac-10 Championship in the steeple in just her second attempt in the event, and broke the meet record formerly held by UW assistant Kelly Strong, clocking 9:54.13. After another win at West Regionals, Lawrence placed third at NCAA's in the event, earning her second All-America honor of the year. She then went on to finish fifth at the US Track & Field Championships, missing a spot on the World Championships team by just a couple places.
"Last year Mel was kind of uneasy and didn't really know what the year was going to hold for her. She then went out and had a monster season and frequently led the team emotionally. Mel is now poised to be a Top-10 finisher at the NCAA Championships and in our conversations that's the goal with Mel. She is dripping with confidence right now," says Metcalf.
The only senior this year in UW's top group is Katie Follett (Fort Collins, Colo.). With five All-American honors to her name and two Pac-10 track titles, she is one of the most accomplished Huskies in school history. Follett became just the second Husky to earn consecutive All-America cross country honors last year, placing 26th at NCAA's right next to Lawrence, following her 19th-place finish as a sophomore. Follett then earned All-America honors on the track in the DMR and indoor 3k, where she was fifth. She became the first UW woman to ever win back-to-back Pac-10 titles when she repeated in the 1,500-meters. She chose to focus on the 5k for nationals, where she had run 15:48 early in the year. Follett reached the finals with ease but suffered her worst race of the season in the final, taking 12th and missing All-America honors by one spot. That sour taste is something the immensely talented senior is looking to wash out.
"Katie's a senior and I can't really believe that happened. It's amazing how fast that goes. I remember like it was yesterday her visiting our campus for the very first time," says Metcalf. "Katie had a solid cross country season but not great by her standards. Outdoors she won another pac-10 Championship in pretty cool fashion. She went to the front and led the whole thing and just exhibited tremendous toughness down the homestretch. Then it ended at the NCAA Championships, where we walked away after the meet and had a long conversation about what are our goals for next year and beyond. They are higher than ever. Katie had a really solid summer of training and she shows up the first day of practice a different athlete than she was a year ago. That's exciting for us; not exciting for everybody else out there."
Where Washington could really separate itself is at the five, six and seven spots. The Huskies had unparalleled depth last year. Case in point, graduated senior Michelle Turner placed 15th at West Regionals yet did not even compete in UW's top-seven at nationals. Junior Lauren Saylor has the early lead on the five spot based on her outstanding sophomore season. Saylor missed being UW's fifth returning All-American by the most miniscule of margins last year, as she finished 41st and the Top-40 earned the honor. Still, 41st was a huge result for the Clovis, Calif. native considering her freshman year she suffered a rough end to the season, placing last at nationals after suffering exhaustion near the finish. Saylor's track season included a 12th-place finish in the 5k at West Regionals, and she barely missed the NCAA 10k field after running a Top-10 time.
"Lauren had a disappointing track season by her standards, but she had a great summer of training," says Metcalf. "Right now this is the best that I've seen Lauren train. She has a great attitude, she's been a leader on our team this fall, and she went from being 253rd as a freshman to 41st, so can she get up to 25th? I think that's a solid goal for her to be in the Top-20 or Top-25."
The next few spots are open for someone to step up and claim, but there is no shortage of contenders. Junior Kailey Campbell (Seattle, Wash.) was perhaps the most improved runner in the Pac-10 last year in track. She earned her first All-America in the DMR and made the NCAA Outdoor Championships at 1,500-meters, with a PR of 4:18. Junior Kenna Patrick (Federal Way, Wash.) was a Regional 5k qualifier and placed 23rd at Pac-10 cross last year, which would have been in the top-two for six conference teams.
"Kailey is way better than she was a year ago. She's had some big meet experiences now that I think will allow her to stand on the starting line in Terre Haute ready to go," Metcalf says. "Kailey gives us great depth with her track credentials and she's incredibly tough. She's a leader on our team right now as well. I would say that right now Kailey would be my prediction as someone who could surprise some people. Kenna as well made steady progress all last fall; she would have run in anybody else's top-five in the country. She is consistent and even-keeled, and that's ideally what you want from that position. You know she's going to go do a great job on race day."
The Huskies also have veteran returners in junior Mo Huber (Oakland, Calif.), and junior Bailey Schutte (Portland, Ore.), each with Pac-10 track experience, and redshirt freshman Allison Linnell could contribute after she made West Regionals in the steeple as a freshman last year.
Seven freshmen join the Washington family this season, with most expected to redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility. The one exception will be Lindsay Flanagan out of Illinois, a four-time prep All-American who is expected to be able to help the team from day one.
"Lindsay I think will run in our top-seven," says Metcalf. "Where, we'll just have to see how she handles the move to 6k and handles the stresses of being a freshman, but she has a certain level of comfort knowing our team is going to be pretty good so she just gets to go run around on a cross country course and be a freshman. She just needs to go be a consistent force and stay healthy and learn along the way. The rest of our group has a lot of talent but we'll probably wait a bit before we see that on display."
With a roster loaded with talent, championship rings to defend and preseason accolades, it could be easy to overlook the process that brought the team to this point to begin with. Even with the target squarely on the back of the Huskies, Metcalf does not see any changes in the group dynamic.
"In individual conversations with our group I think they're kind of unfazed by (being defending champions). Right now it's just about wanting to do a great job today. Let's do a great job at the Sundodger Invitational," says Metcalf. "We'll make adjustments from there. We know that Monday November 23rd is the date that we need to be ready, and that's what we've talked about every year. They've been very businesslike and professional in practice so far. The attitude of our group, they're a group of humble, modest, confident young women and they just want to keep it rolling and they're exciting about what the potential is."
Winning for the second time figures to only get more difficult. The upper echelon of the Pac-10 all figures to have improved this season, including second-ranked Oregon. Sixth-ranked Stanford relied on a large and talented freshman class last year that should be even better, and a veteran Arizona State squad is ranked 11th at the outset. Now Washington will have to prove they haven't let up, and it will be up to everyone else to show if they have closed the gap.
"We return five women that finished in the top-41. If they just do that then they're going to be hard to beat, and from my standpoint I think they've gotten better," Metcalf says. "Our goal is not necessarily going to NCAA's and winning; it's about going out and competing at the best of our ability. Get to the starting line at Terre Haute line with everyone full of run, healthy and excited. There are great women's cross country teams out there right now. Last year we were fortunate enough to have it all work out. You've just got to assume everything's not going to be perfect. Our group the challenge will be to handle the ups and downs, handle the stresses that occur along the way and be mature about it and trust the athletes on our team to get it done when it needs to be done."