TERRE HAUTE (23-Nov) -- After finishing second four times, the women of the University of Arkansas under coach Lance Harter finally won their first-ever NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships team title here today, beating back a strong challenge from Brigham Young University, and prevailing by just six points, 96 to 102. Moreover, the Razorbacks became only the second women's team in history to win all three NCAA team titles in a calendar year (indoor track, outdoor track and cross country) joining the University of Texas which accomplished the same feat in 1986.
PHOTO: Weini Kelati of the University of New Mexico with one kilometer to go before winning the 2019 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships over 6-K in Terre Haute, Indiana (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State University just 20 meters from winning the 2019 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships 10-K in Terre Haute, Indiana (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
"Oh my God! It's unbelievable," an elated Harter told Race Results Weekly, seemingly unaware of the near-freezing temperatures and steady rain. He continued: "They just didn't lose their poise. They stayed with it all the way up the home stretch. They took care of business."
The Razorbacks were the number one-ranked team coming into these championships, so their victory was not a surprise. They won both their conference and regional championships, and in the latter meet scored a perfect 15 points sweeping the top-5 places. Nonetheless, they faced a spirited challenge from BYU whose athletes worked together as a team and put three women --Courtney Wayment, Erica Birk and Whittni Orton-- across the line in fifth, sixth and seventh position in a span of just nine tenths of a second. BYU helped set a strong early pace and Harter's team was quickly put on the defensive.
"The kids dug down deep today, because BYU set the precedent early," Harter observed. "So, they knew they were behind."
Through the 2-kilometer mark, fully 50 women were in the lead pack led by New Mexico junior Weini Kelati. Arkansas's Katie Izzo, Taylor Werner, Devin Clark, and Carina Viljoen, were in that pack, but Lauren Gregory and Maddy Reed were several seconds back, and BYU was leading by 24 points at that split. The fifth and last scorer can make a huge difference in the outcome of the team competition, so Gregory and Reed needed to stay in the hunt.
"It was a matter of OK, how much will do you have to try to walk this thing down?" Harter said.
Kelati pulled away from the field and was running alone with a five-second lead by the 4-kilometer mark (13:14.9), trailed by Wisconsin's Alicia Monson, Orton, and Izzo who were working together. Werner was just two seconds behind, and Arkansas was leading the team competition by nine points. Kelati was able to widen that lead to 10 seconds by the finish --clinching the individual title in 19:47.5 to Monson's 19:57.1-- but Izzo and Werner, knowing the team title was on the line, pushed hard to stay as close as possible and finished third and fourth in 19:59.3 and 20:11.1, respectively.
"Everybody counts, every jersey counts," said Izzo, who transferred from Cal Poly where she competed last year. "Yes, I was really fighting. It was also very cold and I didn't want to pass out or anything."
When Wayment, Birk and Orton swept over the line just behind Werner, Arkansas fans held their breath as they waited for their next three finishers. Clark finished 21st, Viljoen 28th, and Gregory 72nd. It was enough because BYU's next two women, Olivia Hoj and Anna Camp, finished 56th and 60th, respectively (41st and 43rd in the team scoring). That was the difference.
"I don't have any words," said the mud-spattered Werner, who openly wept. "I worked so hard every day. Just knowing that we persevered, and went through all these struggles, it's just a dream come true. I love those guys so much. I'm so happy."
BYU would get to taste victory on the men's side, however. Under longtime coach Ed Eyestone, they had never won a team title at these championships and were considered underdogs to Northern Arizona University who were undefeated this season.
The race started oddly when the six-foot, three-inch Peter Seufer of Virginia Tech decided to break open the race, early. Seufer --who ran without a hat or long sleeves despite the cold and heavy rain-- had a nine-second lead by the halfway mark of the 10-kilometer race. He said that he felt strong and was running on feel.
"I mean, nobody expected me to do anything," Seufer told reporters after the race. He continued: "I knew going in there was nothing to lose. Why not put myself in the position to do something special today?"
Behind Seufer the team battle was playing out between BYU and NAU, but it became obvious that that the Lumberjacks were having an off day. At the halfway mark they trailed the BYU Cougars by 46 points and by the 8-kilometer mark that margin hadn't budged. If BYU could just hold on the team title would be theirs.
"We knew we had a chance," said Eyestone. "NAU's always tough. They had an off day, but our guys just came through."
Iowa State's Edwin Kurgat, third at these championships last year, was just steps behind Seufer at 8-K. After catching him, he sat on his heels for a few moments,then quickly pulled away to get the individual title unpressed in 30:32.7. Colorado's Joe Klecker also dropped Seufer and finished a clear second (30:37.1) while BYU's Connor Mantz --only a sophomore-- kicked past Seufer right before the line to get third, 30:40.0 to 30:41.1.
"I knew I could do something special today," said Kurgat who revealed that Seufer's breakaway didn't knock him off his game. "No, I was not worried. I knew I still had a lot of energy. I was like, let him work until 2-K (to go) then start going. It didn't change anything."
While BYU's first man finished third, NAU's first man --freshman Drew Bosley-- only finished 23rd. The 46-point lead BYU had at 8-K swelled to 54 points at the finish, 109 to 163. Colorado finished just one point behind with 164.
"This has been a long time coming," said Eyestone, who became the first man ever to win an individual NCAA cross country title (1984) and also coach a winning team. He continued: "You can't even put it into words how proud I am. They really rose up."