TERRE HAUTE, In. — Saturday was a typical November day in the midwest for the NCAA cross country championships, with temperatures in the mid-30s that felt even colder with consistent rain that soaked the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course until it resembled a mud pit.
No, the Longhorns were definitely not in Texas anymore.
Despite the challenging conditions, junior Sam Worley became Texas’ first cross country All-American in six years with a 27th-place finish in the 253-man field, clocking 31:12.4 over the 10-kilometer course. The middle-distance specialist led the Longhorns to a 25th-place team finish with 588 points, their best showing at nationals since 2013.
— Texas T&F/XC (@TexasTFXC) November 23, 2019
“It hurt, it hurt really bad,” the New Braunfels native said. “There were a lot of times when I was going through dark patches, but I just tried to keep my head down, stay as relaxed as possible, think positive and try to get through the next turn.”
The directive from coach Pete Watson was for Worley and senior John Rice to start the race around 60th place, then move up into All-American position — top 40 — through the final 5k. With two potential All-Americans, the expectation was for a top-20 team finish.
“We thought (20th) was a realistic goal,” Watson said. “(We) figured Sam and John could be right around All-American and Sam was great today, John just got buried off the line. And (our) third, fourth and fifth (runners) are true freshmen, so it’s an experience you can try to explain to them a million times over, but then you have to go through it.”
Worley, though, represented the Longhorns well by executing the plan to near perfection, running in 59th place at the 3k checkpoint, 39th at 5k, 31st at 8k, then passing four more competitors before the finish line.
“That’s how we ran all year, run up through the field,” Worley said of the new strategy. “Last year, coming here, I got out well and blew up and went backwards. We figured as long as we could stay positive and pass more runners than I was getting passed, it would be a better day and better outcome.”
The run was a huge improvement over Worley’s 131st-place finish in 2018.
“If you got in over your head a little early, especially as a miler, you can really do the moonwalk,” Watson said of the strategy to be patient and start mid-pack. “But if you put yourself 120th, 130th, I didn’t think he could move all the way up. I thought around 60th, you’re going to be five or six seconds back of being All-American at 5k. And you just gotta check yourself and see if you can do it … (Sam) nailed it. You gotta give him an A-plus.”
Rice, the team’s No. 2 runner with an 83rd-place finish, is the only athlete from the top five who graduates. With three freshmen scorers this year, Watson’s young team has a ton of upside for years to come.
The UT women placed 30th in the 31-team field with 713 points, their best finish at nationals since 2012. Senior Destiny Collins led the Longhorns in 129th place, clocking 21:27.9 for 6k. Kathryn Gillespie, a fifth-year graduate student who led the team at two meets this season including the Big 12 championships, placed 149th in 21:36.
— Texas T&F/XC (@TexasTFXC) November 23, 2019
“We really thought we could be top 25,” coach PattiSue Plumer said. “We’re happy not to be last, but that’s a pretty low bar and this team is better than that.”
It hurt the Longhorns not to have No. 3 runner Beth Ramos at full strength; she hurt her ankle warming up before the race. The freshman had placed right behind Gillespie at the Chile Pepper XC Festival early in the season, and was 15th at the Big 12 championships for all-conference honors.
“We don’t have the kind of depth where we can lose somebody like that,” Plumer said. “She ran great, she gave it her all and we’re really proud of her, but we don’t have the kind of talent that we can lose 100 points right off the top.”
Of the athletes who competed on Saturday, only Collins and Madeline Vondra had raced in the NCAA cross country championships before.
“It’s pretty overwhelming when you come here (for the first time) and our newbies experienced that today,” Plumer said. “It won’t be new next year and hopefully we make it back and we’re better.”
Weini Kelati of New Mexico won the women’s championship title in 19:47.5, ten seconds clear of runner-up Alicia Monson of Wisconsin. Arkansas’ Katie Izzo and Taylor Werner took third and fourth to lead the Razorbacks to the program’s first-ever women’s national cross country team title with 96 points over BYU, whose Cougars scored 102 points. Arkansas is the second women’s team in history to win the NCAA indoor, outdoor and cross country team titles in the same calendar year. The University of Texas accomplished the feat in 1986.
Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat won the men’s individual title in 30:32.7, which helped the Cyclones to their first podium finish in fourth place since 1994, when they won the national title. The BYU men took home the top trophy, the first in their program’s history, with 109 points, toppling three-time defending team champions Northern Arizona, who in turn held on to second place by a single point over Colorado, 163 to 164.
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