After the last Cal runner crossed the finish line at the NCAA Championships on Monday, the No. 23 Cal women’s cross country team’s most successful season ended. The results were posted, and the Bears found their name in the 18th position. For many of the runners, this was their last cross country race, and they had fallen short of their top-10 aspirations.
As the rain fell down at LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Ind., an aura of dissatisfaction surrounded the team. However, a smiling coach Tony Sandoval provided the team with a different perspective.
“As the weeks and months go by the team will realize that it was a good performance,” Sandoval said. “Many people see the NCAA’s as the end. It really is the beginning for those who want to continue on and it’s a springboard for a number of seasons down the road.”
Not since 1990 has Cal had a female runner finish in the top 25 at NCAAs, but that changed when Cal had an unprecedented two runners in the top 25 this year. Senior Deborah Maier earned her second All-American honors with an 11th place finish this year, up 19 spots from her individual performance at last year at Nationals. Maier’s finish is the best finish for a Cal female runner since Kirsten O’Hara’s 11th place finish in 1987. Behind Maier was senior Chelsea Reilly who was making her first appearance at the Championship. Injuries have plagued Reilly throughout her career, but this year she was determined and her persistence rewarded her with a 24th place finish and All-American honors along with Maier.
Seniors Taylor Bryson and Taylor Dutch and freshman Kelsey Santisteban were the other three Cal runners to score, finishing within 14 seconds of each other. Bryson showed resiliency by rebounding from a poor showing at the West Regionals by improving her time by 41 seconds to finish 159th. Dutch began the race too aggressively and faded to 176th while Santisteban finished 179th to bring the total team score to 433.
The Championship had one of the fastest fields ever, with Georgetown claiming the team title by barely beating Washington and Villanova. Although Maier took the lead with only a quarter of the race left, she was out kicked by 10 runners as Sheila Reid of Villanova claimed the individual crown.
“One of the most competitive races I have ever seen,” Sandoval said. “To have that number of people break 20 minutes on this course is phenomenal. With 400 meters to go there was 15 people right there. It was a dead out sprint to the finish.”
A noteworthy accomplishment beyond finishing in the top 20 in the country is beating conference rival Arizona who had beat the Bears three straight times coming into the meet.
Despite the intensity of the race, the Bears avoided a let down and the top five athletes made sure they left everything out on the course.
“There are a lot of good teams that come to Nationals and in the heat of battle fall apart,” Sandoval said. “We didn’t fall apart. In 40 years I’ve only had one time where all five athletes ran their very best race. I am very proud of our athletes.”