New Dawgs Learn Tricks From Defending Champs
Oct. 7, 2009
Previous Cross Country Features
By Joe Darda
Freshman runner Breanna Huschka has a lot of reasons for attending the University of Washington: "It's great academically and athletically, and I like that it's a big school. There are a lot of great professors and a lot of opportunities." This is, more or less, what a university brochure might express to a prospective student. But Huschka has another, more proverbial, reason for choosing Washington: "You only get better by rubbing elbows with the best."
If the proverb holds true, then the Everett product Huschka is certainly in the right place--and on the right team.
Coming off of their first national championship in 2008, the Washington women's cross country team has picked up right where it left off, winning its first two meets in dominant fashion and claiming a unanimous No. 1 ranking. These women are not easy to keep up with; even runners on the No. 14 men's team have occasionally found themselves in practice being overtaken--and maybe a little embarrassed--by a pack of All-American women. For Huschka and six other freshmen, competing for the No. 1 team in the nation has been a challenge and a thrill.
"Coming in to the season, it was somewhat intimidating knowing how good the girls were," freshman Grace Green says. "I thought maybe I'd be over my head and out of my league, but it hasn't been that way. Everyone warms up together, everyone does the same workouts, and there are always people to run with."
Green is from Troy, Michigan, where, like most D-1 runners, she was the best on her high school team. At Washington, Green is running well, finishing 17th at the Sundodger Invitational and 6th at the Emerald City Open, but is not among the Husky top-seven. This, she says, is more of an encouragment. "Being on such a good team gives you something to work towards," Green says. "I knew the girls were fast. I knew what to expect. So far, it's been inspiring."
With 2008 All-Americans Christine Babcock, Kendra Schaaf, Mel Lawrence, and Katie Follett returning, the Washington roster is loaded. As a result, both Huschka and Green are redshirting the fall season to preserve a year of eligibility, while adjusting to college and collegiate athletics.
Assistant coach Kelly Strong emphasizes that this season will, however, play an important role in the newcomers' future success. "We don't focus on the fact that they're redshirting the season," she says. "We tell them it's a process; it's about three and four years down the road."
Huschka, like Green, has run well in the early season meets, adapting quickly to Strong and head coach Greg Metcalf's program. She has also internalized Strong's advice. "I knew coming in that I wasn't going to be the number one runner or anything like that," Huschka says. "Right now, I'm figuring out what college running is all about. I just need to be patient and focus on getting better. It's all about the future."
Whereas Huschka, Green, and fellow freshmen Justine Johnson, Melissa Mello, Alison Ponce, and Laura Schmitt will be using the '09 season as a transitional stepping-stone, one of their classmates is already contributing to the top group. A four-time high school All-American out of Roselle, Illinois, Lindsay Flanagan has made an immediate impact in her first season at Washington. Two weeks after finishing 10th overall at Sundodger, Flanagan posted an impressive 30th-place (seventh on the team) showing at the Notre Dame Invitational, helping the Huskies turn away nine top-30 squads.
Strong has been impressed, but not surprised, by Flanagan's unfreshman-like performance, attributing it partially to the Illinoisan's poise: "I don't think Lindsay has been intimidated at all. She's embraced the challenge, and I think she can see herself running like Kendra [the team frontrunner] is now."
At Lake Park High School in Roselle, Flanagan was often more than a minute ahead of her closest teammate in races, and therefore was forced to train mostly by herself. At Washington, however, Flanagan has benefited from the company of 22 very able training partners. "It's been great having people to run with everyday. It's a big change from high school," she says. "Everyone's excited about what we're doing and the whole team's really close."
Flanagan is one of the many out-of-staters who comprise the women's cross country team. The majority of Flanagan's freshman teammates are from outside Washington State. This is at least partially the result of the team's recent success; not surprisingly, recruits want to run for a team that wins.
"In the past couple of years, we've received more interest from all over the country," Strong says. "If you look at the group we took to Notre Dame, they're from California, Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois. We attract a diverse group of women."
Whereas the Washington program may not have occurred to a top Midwestern recruit ten years ago, now the Huskies are on everyone's radar. "Washington was one of the first schools I looked at," Flanagan recalls. "I visited early on last year and pretty much knew right away this was where I'd be going. Nothing else really compared."
So far, Flanagan's instinct hasn't failed her, and if history holds true, things may only get better--and faster.
"Freshman year we want them to plug in and make the transition to college running," Strong says. "We've seen recently how much improvement can take place between freshman and sophomore year, and I think Allison Linnell is a great example of that."
Second-year runner Linnell redshirted the '08 cross country season and, after a year of hard training, has seen her times improve by more than a minute since last fall. This is the example the seven Washington newcomers will try and emulate over the coming months. They certainly seem to recognize the process. "Running with these girls everyday makes me think I can eventually run at the same level," Flanagan says. "If I keep training, I know I can."