A cross country course is designed to challenge a runner in so many facets. It’s so much more than six kilometers of hills, slopes and turns. Obviously physical strength and athleticism are needed to be successful. There is an internal strength necessary as well, patience, passion and the will to keep going. There are moments of exhilaration and moments of doubt. And, when the finish line is crossed, a sense of accomplishment.
Every season is like the start of a cross country race. When the gun is raised, each and every runner is poised for a mad sprint to the head of pack. Like a finely tuned thoroughbred, the reins need to be pulled in a bit. It’s a long race and patience is a key. One can not peak to soon in the race only to have too little gas in the tank for the home stretch. A smart move at the right time and a strong kick, and a success is good possibility.
The Minnesota women’s cross country program found their collective stride in 2005 and with a wealth of experience returning, led by a pair of All-Americans, a talented freshman class, led by a Minnesota high school standout, and even some additional depth by the transfer route, the 2006 Golden Gopher season embraces the highest of expectations. Using another horseracing term, veteran head coach Gary Wilson is chopping at the bit. He has the most talented team in 20-plus years at Minnesota and he will be the trainer, not letting these thoroughbred student-athletes out of the gate too quickly and come the championships portion of the season, encouraging them to run like the wind.
For the first time in Minnesota history, the Gophers have two All-Americans to build a team around. Senior Emily Brown and junior Ladia Albertson-Junkans.
“We are very fortunate to return two of the best runners in the conference,” said Wilson of Brown and Albertson-Junkans. “Coupled with our redshirts, talented incoming freshmen and improving underclassmen, we feel the sky is the limit.”
Brown has continuously improved throughout her collegiate career with the Gophers, both on the cross country course and the track. After earning her first All-America citation of her career with a 29th-place finish at last fall’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, Brown added two national awards in the track season to become just the second Gopher overall, and the first in 20 years, to capture All-America honors in both cross country and track in the same school year.
“What a great story she is,” added Wilson. “After battling two foot operations, not related to running, she has had two very remarkable years. Last year was simply awesome for her and she will be an integral part of any success we have in 2006.”
Albertson-Junkans got stronger as her sophomore campaign went on. After gathering runner-up honors at the NCAA Midwest Region Championships, Albertson-Junkans attacked the national championship course with control and confidence. The result was the fastest 6-kilometer time in school history (20:19.3) and All-America honors with a 21st-place showing.
“We are very excited about Ladia’s prospects for the fall,” said Wilson. “Not only is she a talented athlete, but also a wonderful, dynamic and positive role model for the entire team.”
Juniors Katie Howery and Julie Schwengler also return from Minnesota’s NCAA squad. Howery and Schwengler were the sixth and seventh runners for the Gophers at the national meet and will expected to be major contenders to move up the lineup and into the scoring positions.
Earning one of those coveted top-seven spots on this Gopher team will not be easy. Not only does Wilson’s charges own a great deal of talent, this talent pool is depth. Other letterwinners from the 2006 squad are sophomores Danielle Ashford and Carie Steil, both of whom earned spots on Minnesota’s lineup for the Big Ten Championships.
“Needless to say, we are one of the most talented and deep teams in the nation,” expressed Wilson. “We have always been proud of the kids we have been able to develop. Our NCAA ninth-place team last season had four athletes who came here as walk-ons and developed into very fine Division I runners. We would not have the program we have without the success that comes from our depth.”
Overall, 13 letterwinners form the foundation of the Gophers’ 2006 roster. In addition to those runners already mentioned, the Gopher veterans are Gabriele Anderson, Ariela DePrenger-Gottfried, Kristin Johansen, Stacia Kalinoski, Ayla Mitchell, Jena Trask and Stefanie Zeihen. Watch for someone from this group of letterwinners to make a step forward and make a bigger impact this fall.
“I think this team has a great focus,” concludes Wilson. “They are certainly proud of what they accomplished last year, but they also know that this is a new season and new team dynamic. Once the freshmen and redshirts have a chance to work into the system, this team will be a force to be reckoned with.”
The future is bright for the Golden Gopher program. The foundation is built of tested veterans, yet plenty of new talent will be competing for roster spots this fall. Redshirt freshman Heather Dorniden will test her skills on the cross country course this fall after capturing Minnesota’s first national title on the track (800 meters) last spring. Two transfers have joined the ranks – Rebekah Yetzer from Colorado State and Abbey O’Connell from Mississippi State – both with some experience behind them. The Gophers’ rookie class is highlighted by Elizabeth Yetzer, one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation out of Lakeville North High School.
“Of course we are excited by the newcomers,” adds Wilson. “It is always fun for me to watch these talented young women join the team and see what they can do at the collegiate level. The most important thing for all these kids, however, is that they continue to have fun, enjoy running and racing, and not put pressure on themselves. Our program values the entire collegiate experience.
Wilson and his Golden Gophers have the highest of expectations for the upcoming season. The 2005 season raised the bar and it’s a sure bet the 2006 squad has the talent and the drive to take this program to even bigger and better heights. The season will be a journey, first small strides, then bigger ones, but in the end, look for the Golden Gophers to continue their climb into national prominence.