UWRF women’s cross-country team runs to first ranking in school history
It was a warm September day when the UWRF women’s cross-country team lined up for one of their most difficult races of the year. Following cold temperatures during training and a mild end of summer, the temperature soared to over 90 degrees by the time the Roy Griak Invitational began at the University of Minnesota. The meet is often one of the toughest on the schedule, and this year would be no different.
“It’s one of the hardest courses, and it’s extremely hilly,” junior runner Linsey Tolkkinen said. “It was super-hot, and a lot of people had to drop out of the race.”
Despite the difficult conditions, every Falcons runner finished the daunting race. Tolkkinen managed to finish, coming in sixth place at 23:50. Senior Abby Fouts led the way for the Falcons, finishing in third place with a time of 23:30.
As a team, the Falcons finished third on the day. This was an impressive feat for the size of the meet, with 12 teams and 160 runners competing. The Falcons had only finished in seventh place at Griak the previous year, highlighting the level of improvement the team has accomplished this year.
The Falcons are now ranked in women’s cross country for the first time in school history at number 35 in Division III. UWRF finished first as a team at the UWRF Falcon Invitational and the Lawrence Invite, with Fouts finishing in first place in both races. Coaching changes and individual growth have begun to pave the way for improvements in practice and at meets.
“When I came in my sophomore year, I was running mid- to back-pack, and I wasn’t stellar,” Fouts said. “But I had coaches who believed in me and pushed me towards being better.”
Fouts has been forced to make the adjustment to running by herself this season due to her pace at running so far up the field. She said she has always relied heavily on her teammates, whether it was pacing off of Tolkkinen or encouraging other runners during the race.
“For the Lawrence meet I was on my own the entire race,” Fouts said. “It was very hard and exhausting … and very nerve-racking to not have anyone next to you, but it was a big confidence booster.”
Both wins are the first in cross-country under third-year head coach Danielle Douglas. She came to UWRF after coaching at Division I Mississippi Valley State for three years. Douglas oversees both the track and field and cross-country programs, while also creating the weight training program and doing the logistical side of the job. However, her ability to bring in a former assistant coach has been one of the keys to success this season.
“(Coach Joseph Chebet) coached with me before (at MVSU), and he jumped at the opportunity to coach with me again,” Douglas said. “He’s very personable with (the runners) and he believes in their ability. He puts a race and mile attack together with them and shows them where they were in the meet.”
The race and mile attack show the runners where they were at different points in the race and how they moved up or fell back. It is benificial for teaching a runner how to make their way through the race and how they paced themselves.
Chebet’s new methods have increased the profile and outlook for the future of the program. Douglas said she has already begun to receive more recruits to fill out a full roster next season, with improved morale and results from athletes being a key selling point.
Chebet’s work with the distance runners has had an immediate effect on the athletes. The team has gone through three different cross-country coaches in the last three years and has never experienced the success they are currently enjoying.
“The team has always struggled in the past with coaching changes,” Tolkkinen said. “We don’t stay for a coach, but we stay for each other and because we love the team.”
Tolkkinen said this level of dedication for the program will continue to bring in new recruits to the cross-country team. UWRF currently has one of the smallest teams in the conference but has continued to be a force at meets this season.
“It’s amazing what we can do with eight girls, when other schools may have close to 30 girls,” Tolkkinen said. “We make the best with what we have, and that definitely makes it more impressive and special.”
While the new ranking has been special for the cross-country team, Fouts maintains that the focus hasn’t shifted.
“It does a lot for us and gives us a huge confidence boost,” Fouts said. “It’s really motivating to see that even though we’re a tiny little team and school, we have power. But we still need to train as though we’re not ranked and achieve more things.”
One of those accomplishments was their third-place finish at the WIAC championships meet on Saturday. Fouts finished fourth individually, and the team achieved their second top-three performance at conference in program history.
But beyond a strong finish at conference, this UWRF team has their sights set on regionals. Tolkkinen went so far as to say that it has been the team’s ultimate goal since she came in as a freshman to make it to nationals as a team, not only as individuals.
Cross-country may seem like an individual sport, but it still maintains a team atmosphere. Fouts said that success in meets is all about race strategy and where you finish in the race. Contrary to track and field, individual times don’t carry the most weight.
“Each course is different from everything else,” Fouts said. “It’s important to focus on placement more than time. Placement determines who goes on to nationals, so it’s about passing more than watching your clock. You can control that more than your time.”
The individual improvements by UWRF women’s cross-country runners have made their goal of reaching nationals something that has never felt so close. The team travels to the NCAA Midwest Regional on Nov. 11 to qualify for the National Championships.