TERRE HAUTE (22-Nov) -- In his 30th year coaching athletics at the University of Arkansas, Lance Harter has seen his share of wins and losses, but mostly wins. Over 500 of his Razorback women have achieved All-American status and they have won a total of 25 NCAA event titles. He has coached superstars like Deena Drossin, Amy Yoder, Dom Scott, Tracy Robertson, and Christin Wurth and his teams have won two NCAA outdoor titles (2016 and 2019) and two indoor (2015 and 2019).
PHOTO: Taylor Werner of the University of Arkansas (left) and Courtney Smith of Harvard competing in the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. Werner finished 15th and Smith 35th (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
Yet Harter's 2019 squad, set to compete in tomorrow's NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships here, is poised to achieve something truly special. Not only are they coming off of a dominating performance at the South Central Regional Cross Country Championships where they scored a perfect 15 points sweeping the top-5 positions, but they were also the NCAA indoor and outdoor track and field champions earlier this year. Should they win tomorrow's team title they will become only the second NCAA women's team to accomplish the three-season triple crown, joining the University of Texas women who did it in 1986 (the University of Oregon also did an academic-year sweep of cross country, indoor and outdoor in 2016/17).
"We're super excited to be here," said Harter who's thick hair turned white long ago. "As of right now everybody is healthy and super excited about the opportunity to race the national championships."
Interestingly, Harter's women have never enjoyed a team title at these championships, although they have been runners-up four times: 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1999. That could easily change tomorrow when his experienced squad of Taylor Werner (SR), Katie Izzo (SR), Carina Viljoen (SR), Devin Clark (SR), Lauren Gregory (JR), Maddy Reed (SR) and Abby Gray (JR) take to the starting line at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.
Werner, 21, from Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, is the team's leader. Rebounding from a debilitating back injury she suffered in 2018 in a car accident, she won the 2019 SEC titles at 3000m and 5000m (both indoors and outdoors), finished second at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 5000m, and was fourth in those same championships at 10,000m. She led the five-woman sweep at her regional meet, finishing just a fraction of a second ahead of teammates Katie Izzo, Carina Viljoen and Devin Clark. She has yet to achieve a truly great performance at these championships, finishing 16th as a freshman in 2016, 104th in 2017 and 81st in 2018 (on the heels of her car accident).
"I think what is so special about this team this season is that we've gone through the hard stuff and the really good stuff," Werner told reporters today at a press conference here. She continued: "It's just something special to the whole team. I see those girls as my sisters. We're so close."
Harter has worked hard to create the kind of healthy environment where young women can develop as athletes, students and citizens. On the heels of the revelations by athletes like Mary Cain, Kara Goucher and Tara Welling who said they suffered in toxic team environments, Harter says that win or lose it is his responsibility to take the long view.
"I think that kind of the basic philosophy of our program is that the window of opportunity you have to be an elite runner is very small when you look at the timeline of your entire life," Harter explained. "Yes, you want to seize that opportunity an capitalize on it as best as possible, but not at the risk of the remainder of your life." He continued: "We have to sometimes keep our running in perspective."
Werner was clearly confident about her team's chances tomorrow where they face a stiff challenge from rivals Brigham Young, Stanford, University of Washington, and North Carolina State. The Arkansas women are top-ranked in the most recent coach's poll.
"There's no fear going into this race, no doubts," said Werner. She added: "I think it's going to be all smiles tomorrow."