Sept. 2, 2011
A casual Golden Gopher Cross Country follower might view this year’s University of Minnesota women’s cross country team as another young one. Indeed they are a youthful group of runners, but it’s a group of 56 student-athletes that gained experience last year and are hungry for success. The Gophers start the season ranked 30th in the preseason polls.
Departed from last year’s 2010 squad are five letterwinners which include Nikki Swenson and Kelly Wilson, who both lead an inexperienced team into the NCAA Championships. The squad finished 27th overall, almost 20 spots back from 2009 where they finished 10th. After that performance you may think it’s time to back up and maybe a little rebuilding needs to be done.
However, the Gopher coaching staff does not believe in rebuilding from scratch, it’s adding onto a base that has already been glued down fiercely.
“Last year’s team was very young and this year’s team is still young, but young with experience and confidence,” assistant coach Sarah Hesser said. “I think towards the end of season we were a little worn out and having a young team at the Big Ten Conference meet is definitely a challenge. Until you run at the Big Ten’s it is a very hard meet to understand. There are not a lot of athletes on the line compared to a meet like the Griak, but every runner there is very talented.”
Expected to lead the team is senior All-American Stephanie Price, who was the Gophers’ top runner last year (31st at NCAA’s), and she will be looking to improve on that mark in her final campaign.
“Stephanie is the Big Ten runner up and now knows how to be a front runner, which will be big for us this year,” Hesser said.
Other Golden Gophers who will be fighting for top spots are sophomores Ashlie Decker
, Missa Varpness
, Katie Moraczewski
, Laura Docherty
, Rachel Drake
, Maggie Bollig
and Cassy Opitz
Decker was the only true freshman last season and capped a great season at the NCCA meet as the Gophers’ second runner behind Price.
Varpness had a very strong first year wearing the Maroon and Gold last season. She took second place at the Oz Memorial behind Price and finished 11th at the Big Ten Championships.
Moraczewski was consistently a part of the Gophers’ top five scorers and was a key to the teams’ sixth straight NCAA appearance last season.
Drake got into the action right away finishing seventh at the Oz Memorial and was a member of the Big Ten Championships team.
Both Bollig and Opitz did not compete at the NCAA’s last season, but had a very successful first year in cross country and showed some impressive things during the track season for the Gophers. Bollig finished 10th at the Big Ten Championships in the 1,500m (4:33.83) and Opitz was right behind her in 12th clocking in at 4:38.98. Coach Hesser calls this group the 1,500 dynamic duo that will make in impact this season.
Another name to keep track of will be Molly Kayfes who joined midway last season and redshirted. A high school soccer player Kayfes raced unattached last spring and had impressive debuts in the mile and 3,000m.
With an incoming class of 14 student-athletes there are a handful of runners that the staff thinks can make an immediate impact for the team. In that group some names to keep an eye out for are Liz Berkholtz, Kaila Urick and Rebecca Rethwisch.
“These three girls are all very tough runners and that’s what we like,” Hesser said. “Liz is a two-time state champion from Wisconsin, Kaila has a lot of talent that we are excited to see and Rebecca last year had a very successful career in Iowa, as she finished ninth in the Griak High School race.”
With the Big Ten being one of the toughest conferences in the country, the Gophers will have their work cut out for them to compete for a league championship.
“Great teams are coming back, but we are ready to compete with the best,” Hesser said. “Our goal is to be at the top of the conference and compete at the national level.”
This year’s schedule has added a few new meets than in the past. The first change is instead of competing at the Pre-NCAA meet the Maroon and Gold will travel across the border into Wisconsin and race at the Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 14. Along with the 26th annual Roy Griak and Tori Neubauer, these races should help the team be prepared for post-season action.
“The Wisconsin Adidas Invite is going to have a deep field, a fast course and will be a great mid season test for us,” Hesser said. “The Griak will be an early test to see where we are as a team, so that when we get to the conference meet we will be confident and prepared.”
Things will kick off tomorrow morning witht the annual Intrasquad race at 10 a.m at the Les Bolstad Golf Course. Next Friday (Sep. 9), the Gophers' will host the Oz Memorial to kick off the season. This will be the first chance to see what the 2011 Minnesota women’s cross country team has in store for what looks to be a promising season.
By Athletic Communications Assistant Michael Levy