A season ago, the Webster University women’s cross-country team fell four points shy of winning the program’s first St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. This year, the Gorloks would not be denied.
Webster claimed its first SLIAC title in 22 years of existence when it edged second-place Principia College by five points at the Oct. 29 meet in Hillsboro, Ill. It was a role reversal from the 2010 SLIAC championship, when Principia beat the Gorloks by four points for the title.
“I told the girls before the race, ‘A lot of times I give you guys processed goals, like a first-mile split to run or let’s run in a pack today,’” cross-country coach Dusty Lopez said. “I don’t talk about the final outcome. But before the race, I said, ‘Look, we came here to win. Let’s get out there and win.’ They got all fired up and just took it to heart.”
Webster accumulated 40 points at the six-team SLIAC championship, which was enough to top Principia’s 45 points. Four of the Gorloks’ five runners finished in the top eight. It was Webster’s fifth finisher, freshman Kassandra Ochoa, who clinched the win by finishing 17th overall. Ochoa had been sick leading up to the race.
“Kassandra was battling and battling, but she was in 14th or 15th place close to the finish line and got passed twice,” Lopez said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, that could have been the race.’ It was just very nerve-racking. At the finish line, I had stationed (assistant) coach (Brian) McQueary to keep track of the scores.
“As I was kind of in the dumps thinking, ‘Oh, man, that might have been it, we might have just lost it,’ he came up and said, ‘I think we’ve got it.’ I looked at the scores, but they were so close that I thought, ‘I’m not going to celebrate.’ We thought we had a good chance about a minute after the race. It was kind of an eager feeling to find out the official results after the race because we felt good about it.”
For the second consecutive race, sophomore Julie Greenough finished first out of the Webster runners. Greenough’s personal-best time of 24:27 at the 6K race placed her fourth overall in the 48-runner field.
“It’s neat whenever you go to a cross-country meet — you’re always scoping out the competition,” Greenough said. “They’re running around, you’re running around. You check them out, see what’s going on. But it’s even better when you finish and you’re looking around, scoping them out, and you realize that you just put up better numbers than their team.”
As it has been all season, Webster’s strength was its consistency. Sophomore Heather Heisse, junior Jane McKibben and sophomore Eroica Stackhouse finished sixth, seventh and eighth overall, respectively. The three runners finished within three seconds of each other.
“That’s the cool part — whenever we started, we knew we had to stick together,” Greenough said. “It’s just exciting that we knew our place. It’s awesome because you know who’s around you, and you know it’s your girls. People see that and they know how strong you are by the way you run and the way you stay grouped together. We were pretty intimidating.”
Webster only has eight runners on its 2011 roster. In comparison, Principia has 19 runners on its roster. Tradition-rich Greenville College, which placed fifth this year, has 12 runners.
“As a new program, sometimes there’s a little bit of a mental block,” Lopez said. “You just think, ‘They’ve got 25 guys on the team, and they’ve been good for so long. We can never catch up.’ We don’t want to be as small as we are forever, but it shows we can compete even with smaller numbers. It’s just super exciting when a program reaches a milestone like this.”
The Gorloks have one final meet on their schedule — the Nov. 12 NCAA Midwest Regional in Rock Island, Ill. Lopez said at least four of his runners will participate in that event.
Lopez said he isn’t sure what the long-term impact of winning the SLIAC title will mean for the cross-country program, though he thinks it could help out in his recruitment efforts. He added that the win could motivate the men’s cross-country squad, which finished sixth in an eight-team field, to improve in the offseason.
“It inspires the girls to continue working hard, because they see there are rewards to be had if they stay consistent, work together and are dedicated,” Lopez said. “My hope is that it also inspires the guys, too, that they say, ‘Hey, we’re around them all day. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like we do.’ This is not something Webster University can never compete for.
“We have to continue to get better, continue working hard. The ceiling is not even in sight yet. There’s so much more room to grow. I don’t think anyone is going to get complacent or pat themselves on the back too much. At the same time, it was a pretty cool moment.”