Women's Cross Country Season Preview
Sept. 18, 2011
» Men's Season Preview
SEATTLE - Early this season the Husky women's cross country team is in a position it is a bit unaccustomed to: flying under the radar. After three consecutive top-10 finishes, including the 2008 NCAA title and a third-place finish in 2009, the Huskies enter the 2011 season ranked just outside the top-10 at No. 11. They're also slotted third in the West Region which they won for the third year in a row last season.
All of that suits Head Coach Greg Metcalf just fine.
"Right now in preseason, we're the No. 11 team in the country - I think we're a little better than that," says Metcalf, with a hint that he might be understating his thoughts. "But we'll figure that out here soon."
Washington endured a tumultuous year last season that saw their NCAA hopes hanging by a thread halfway through the season. But piece by piece UW got their lineup back in shape, first adding freshman sensation Katie Flood at Pre-Nationals, and getting back All-American Christine Babcock just in time for Pac-10s.
With a bid to nationals in no way locked up, the Huskies put out a great effort to upset three top-10 teams and win Regionals in Eugene, but the effort seemed to take its toll, as just over a week later the women struggled to a 16th-place finish, though surprisingly no West Region teams cracked the top-10.
But where last year began with all sorts of question marks and health concerns, this season brings a renewed sense of optimism, confidence, and team togetherness.
"In the NCAA Championships, we had a combination of freshman that weren't fully ready for that yet. Our veterans--Mel and Christine--weren't fully healthy. It was a great learning opportunity and I think that because Liberty Miller, Katie Flood, Justine Johnson and Lindsay Flanagan were there last year, they learned and those experiences with the people we have returning makes us much better at the start of this year than the end of last year."
Flood got a late start to her freshman season, but from there on she was a rock through the fall and continuing on to the track. She led the Huskies at all postseason meets, earning Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year honors for a sixth-place conference finish, followed by a sixth-place Regional finish. The Des Moines, Iowa native went on to earn All-America Second Team honors indoors, placing 10th in the 3k, and honorable mention outdoors in the 1,500-meters, where she made the NCAA semis in her hometown.
She set a high standard for herself, but appears fully capable of meeting and exceeding it after a full summer of training.
"Even as a sophomore, I think that Katie is a leader," Metcalf says. "Last summer, she didn't start running until almost the first day of practice, so she's light years ahead of where she was a year ago. I think that she will be way better this cross country season than she was last year in the fall," an exciting thought for Husky fans.
A sight for the sorest of eyes will be senior Christine Babcock all the way back to her All-American form of 2008 and 2009. The last Husky left that ran at the 2008 NCAA Championships, where she led the team in seventh-place, Babcock's trials with her foot have been well documented. Rather than taking a redshirt year last year, she competed for the first time in a year at the Pac-10 meet, with hardly any training time, and still gutted out a 19th-place finish that helped spur UW back to nationals.
But it still wasn't quite smooth sailing after the fall, as an achilles injury forced the Irvine, California product to miss a second straight track season. At long last, Babcock has been running for a full summer, piling up the miles and inspiring her teammates along the way.
"Christine had the best summer training she's ever had," says Metcalf. "She hasn't raced in a long time, but I think she is in a good place. If she is healthy, able to train, and able to stand on the starting line, fully charged, she just makes us instantly better. I think that's where we are right now. She's been able to train and she's making progress every week. She makes our entire team excited."
One thing that Metcalf knows he can count on is that "Christine will always go out and put out supreme effort."
Not many cross country teams around the nation will be able to add a First Team All-American at 5,000-meters to their squad this fall, but that is essentially what Washington will do with sophomore Megan Goethals, who had her first cross country season cut short but then came on to have an outstanding spring on the track. Goethals made NCAA Indoors in the 3k, was Pac-10 runner-up and the West Prelims winner at 5,000-meters, and then set the freshman school record at outdoor nationals with a sixth-place finish in the 5k in 15:47.
Goethals will now look to carry that momentum over to the grass this fall. Metcalf says Megan experienced "a great deal of personal development last year and I think at the end of the track season she ran just a fantastic series of races." Goethals had an excellent summer of training, according to Metcalf. "She's done everything that we've asked her to do and if we get her to the starting line, she's going to take care of the rest. She's a great competitor; she's as tough as nails."
The rest of the squad is bursting with talent, but those first three have All-American credentials and potential, and will make the Huskies a threat in any race.
"Katie, Megan and Christine function well together and it's been fun. Those three are a great place to start for us. If they do what they're capable of doing, and we add a few more pieces, we'll be all right."
The first piece could be sophomore Justine Johnson, who was as big a reason as anyone in UW's late-season surge last fall. Johnson, the Victoria, B.C. native, was Washington's third runner at Pac-10s, placing 15th, and then moved up to number two at Regionals with a seventh-place finish. She went on to score at Pac-10s in the 1,500-meters and finish 18th at West Prelims.
Can Johnson move from pleasant surprise to consistent frontrunner this season? "I think so for sure," says Metcalf. "She shows up the first day of practice right where she needs to be. I think Justine's expectations are high for herself, but I also think that she knows that our teams success doesn't rest on her shoulders. She just gets to go out and continue to do her thing."
Perhaps the most consistent Husky over the past two years has been Lindsay Flanagan, now heading into her junior season. The Illinoisan was one of just two runners in UW's top-seven at every race last year, and she followed it with PRs on the track at 5,000- and 10,000-meters. Flanagan was fifth in the 10k at Pac-10s and 18th at NCAA Prelims, closing in on an individual NCAA bid on the track.
Still, Metcalf thinks Flanagan may have peaked a bit too early a year ago, when she started the season with a win at the Sundodger Invite. "Last summer, she kind of overcooked herself a little bit, literally and figuratively," says Metcalf. "But I think she's had a great summer and our goal with Lindsay is that when she gets to the end of the year, she's firing on all cylinders and full of run and our conversations are about laying the framework in September and building to running well in November."
Also gaining NCAA experience last season was freshman Liberty Miller of Simi Valley, California. Along with Flanagan, Miller also ran in the top-seven in every outing last fall, before redshirting the track season. Early indications are that Miller is poised for a big sophomore season, but that's not what first impresses Metcalf.
"Libby is just a great teammate. There's not a selfish bone in her body she makes our team better every day," says Metcalf, adding that "I don't think it's anything she tries to do but it's just who she is." And she'll be making the team better on race day as well. "There was a point last fall where Libby was as good as anybody on the team, but nobody really got to see it. She's made lots of progress and I think Libby is ready for a breakout sophomore campaign and we're really excited about it."
The depth continues to show as Coach Metcalf examines the roster. Sophomore Phoebe Merritt and redshirt freshman Chelsea Orr could be major surprises this season. Both had outstanding indoor track seasons, with Orr winning the NACAC Junior Cross Country Championships for Team USA in Trinidad in early spring before a stress fracture stopped her outdoor season before it started. Merritt, a transfer from Occidental College, has come a long way as well since becoming a Husky.
Phoebe showed flashes of brilliance last fall. I think she could've made our team last year," says Metcalf. "But I don't think she knew the kind of the runner that she wanted to be and who she really was. Now, she feels much more comfortable with our team and in practice, and she gets better every day. I think she's full of confidence."
Orr twisted an ankle before the start of practice and missed a little time, but prior to that had a full summer of training. She'll compete early on but Metcalf thinks her timeline is "geared towards the Pac-12 championships and beyond. Our goal is to get her ready to run by that point of the year," he says. "She's gifted and talented. If we can add Chelsea Orr to our team and she runs in our top five, then that's a fantastic addition to our group."
Two more veteran Huskies have NCAA experience, as juniors Allison Linnell and Kayla Evans are back. But only Linnell is expected to compete as Evans is on the mend. "Allison I think has had a solid summer and she has been through this before - she'll get better throughout the fall. She's been 19th in the Pac-10 championships and she still wants to do it and I believe that she can."
Sophomore Mackenzie Carter made an impression last year, and was UW's alternate at the NCAA meet after running at her first Pac-10s. However, she was banged up on the track while running the steeplechase and Metcalf thinks Carter might "take a little more time to get rolling this fall. She'll race early on and we'll see how she progresses but she brings a lot to this team."
Washington's No. 1-rated recruiting class from a year ago had its share of ups and downs, and Megan Morgan was one runner that did not get a chance to show her stuff, as she redshirted the full year. Another talented Californian, Morgan will get into the mix this fall for the first time.
"I think she's got a chance to make an impact," Metcalf says of Morgan. "She'll make her debut at the Sundodger. I think she's ready to get one under her belt and just go from there. She's very talented and full of potential."
This year's freshman class features four young standouts, two of which figure to focus more on mid-distances and the other two on the longer runs. Once again, UW attracted top talent from around the country, as Eleanor Fulton comes to Seattle from Lone Tree, Colorado, and Joelle Amaral from Randolph, New Jersey. Baylee Mires is a multiple Washington State champ from Spokane, and Erin Johnson is another local talent from Shoreline.
Fulton could make the quickest impact. A Foot Locker All-American in cross country, she ran with UW's lead group at the early season race at Magnuson Park. She ran for Team USA at the World Junior Track Championships in Canada, competing in the steeplechase. One of Fulton's biggest runs came at the 2011 Jim Ryun Dream Mile, where she placed second in a time of 4:42.90. Needless to say, she was one of the nation's top recruits.
"Just watching her run every day, she is going to be a good one," Metcalf believes. "She's excited and I'm fired up to actually watch her race. Right now, I think she'll run in our top seven for sure. She's just a perfect fit for our team." Mires and Amaral both can run great cross country, Metcalf says, but will likely redshirt this fall. Johnson has the potential to surprise that Chelsea Orr possessed last year, with "nice, simple mechanics and lots of upside."
Washington comes into the fall with generally good health, but a few more women are dealing with dents and dings. Grace Green, who made the travel squad to Notre Dame last year, is a few weeks from getting back to workouts. Sophomore Breanna Huschka of Everett will run but Metcalf says she's been on a fine line with injuries. Still he lauds both of their willingness to work hard. Mid-distance standout Nikki Codd is back running after being out for months with a hip injury, and redshirt freshman Chloe Curtis is aiming to make her Husky debut on the track. Talented former state champ Anna Dailey, who came to UW from Stanford, will first be eligible in the spring as well.
The schedule for the Huskies gets an overhaul this year as well. After the Sundodger it's a quick turnaround to running the Roy Griak Invite in Minnesota one week later. Then it's a three week layoff until the Adidas Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 14, expected to feature a loaded field. Then it's off to the first Pac-12 Championships, hosted this year by Arizona State, on Oct. 29. Washington will look for a fourth-straight West Region title in Palo Alto on Nov. 12, which would earn a bid to NCAAs, back in Terre Haute, Indiana on Nov. 21.