The Utah women’s cross country program has followed the example of the Utes’ national champion ski program by recruiting internationally. That explains how Utah’s top five runners include three from England, one from Australia and one from Ogden.
The comparison to skiing ends there. Or could you picture five skiers racing down the slopes in a pack?
Coach Kyle Kepler’s strategy is to make cross country a genuine team sport, and he’s succeeding. With their top five runners staying together for about three-fourths of the race to pace and push one another, the Utes beat No. 1-ranked Colorado and four other top-10 schools in winning Notre Dame’s meet this month. They did so without having a runner place in the top 10 individually.
Utah's Bella Williams and Poppy Tank, seniors from England, were 11th and 16th, respectively. Sarah Feeny, a senior from Ogden, was 19th. Cara Woolnough, a sophomore from Australia, finished 27th and Scarlet Dale, a sophomore from England, was 37th.
Add it up, and it is the biggest achievement in Utah’s cross country history. That “says a lot about where the program is and where it can be, with what we’ve been building for a while … it all came together on one day,” Kepler said.
The Oct. 4 performance in South Bend, Ind., moved Utah to No. 6 in the rankings. They may fall slightly in the next poll, after finishing 11th among 36 teams in another tough field in Wisconsin’s meet last Friday.
Tuesday will mark one year since Lauren McCluskey, a track and field athlete and teammate of the cross country runners, was killed on campus. The anniversary is a reminder of how the Utes competed in the Pac-12 Championship four days later, while feeling “just kind of numb,” Kepler said.
“It's been a challenging year, to say the least,” Kepler said. “It's a little different for everybody. We're not asking anyone to do any certain thing [Tuesday], we're going to let each kid deal with it in her own way.”
Coping with the loss of McCluskey was “a defining factor for our team to be able to handle trials and still be able to accomplish great things,” Feeny said.
The 2019 Pac-12 meet is next week in Monmouth, Ore. The Utes will stage their own meet Friday at Sunnyside Park, resting most of their top athletes. The program is gearing up for the NCAA Mountain Region Championships, Nov. 15 at Rose Park Golf Course with Utah as the host.
“This is a very special year to do it, because we are making history at Utah,” Feeny said.
The Utes have built a cohesive, committed team in what’s ultimately an individual sport. Kepler has convinced his top athletes they can improve the team’s score by running together for most of the race. The approach is somewhat unconventional, because a high individual finish obviously is helpful. Depth makes a big difference, though, as it did for the Utes at Notre Dame.
“It's honestly been my dream to have so many girls to run with in a pack,” Feeny said. “It becomes more of a team sport. … There's just something about running with teammates that creates a very special bond.”
Tank (23rd) and Williams (24th) finished together at Wisconsin, where Dale’s absence due to illness forced the Utes to count their No. 6 runner in the team score. Otherwise, they easily would have finished in the top 10. Utah still placed ahead of eight Top 25 teams, including No. 14 Oregon of the Pac-12.