It’s no secret that the West Virginia University cross country team has been good, make that very good, the past few seasons.
With All-Americans Marie-Louise Asselin, Keri Bland and Clara Grandt in the lead, the Mountaineers recorded three straight top 10 performances at the NCAA Championships, one BIG EAST title, attained a school-best No. 3 national ranking on October 6, 2009, and the trio collected a combined 10 All-America honors.
This year, those three powerhouses are out of eligibility.
However, instead of sitting back and thinking about its past success, the WVU cross country team is taking focus on the next batch of talented runners who are looking to step up, led by senior Kaylyn Christopher.
“We have lost a number of girls in terms of senior-year status,” coach Sean Cleary acknowledged. “It potentially could be one of the biggest losses in terms of graduation in the NCAA. They led races, won races and were always out front. But behind them, without our fourth through seventh runners and the remainder of the team we surely would not have done what we did or had as much success as we did.”
As Christopher, a native of nearby Kingwood, W.Va., enters her final season on the cross country team, she knows that they are down a few runners, but has only one thing on her mind – winning.
“Our goal is to prove that even though we are taking a little bit of a hit, we are still a pretty strong team,” Christopher said. “We want to do that not only within our conference and region, but throughout the country as well.
“Teamwise, we want to make it to nationals, and once we do, anything short of top 10 would be a disappointment. That is what we are going for. We just need to see where the chips fall this season and what our capabilities are.”
Christopher herself is no stranger to winning after earning two All-America honors last season in track.
During the indoor season, she aided her team to one of the greatest finishes in school history at the NCAA Indoor Championships as all seven student-athletes who competed earned All-America accolades and the squad finished higher than any other BIG EAST team, coming in at No. 10.
It was a standout moment in Christopher’s career, as she was one of three to earn two All-America honors. Her first came in the mile and another as a member of the distance medley relay team.
Christopher started the day with a 12th-place finish in the mile with a time of 4:46.76, earning the honor by virtue of being one of the top eight U.S. finishers. She then turned around to aid the distance medley relay team to an eighth-place showing with a time of 11:16.39 just a few hours later.
Also, last season, Christopher proved to be a winner outside of running and in the classroom, as she was named an ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA Academic All-American.
A double major in journalism and philosophy, academics have always been on Christopher’s mind and something that she has worked hard to achieve.
“Earning Academic All-American honors was really important to me because not only did it mean that I was beginning to progress with my running and getting to that level athletically, I also was tying that in with trying to stay focused on my academics and bringing it together as a whole,” Christopher admitted. “It was something to work for and one of my goals.
“That is one thing, when kids are trying to decide where to go to college, you try to tell them that athletics are just as important. I was the same way when I started college, I was all about athletics – it was what I came here for. But I guess throughout the process, you kind of mature and you realize that your career is going to have to develop in the next few years.”
As far as her own career goes, no matter where she ends up, Christopher hopes that running is involved.
“I have two plans, but I always want running to be a part of my life in some aspect. It is always going to be there,” the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s all-Academic team member said. “I would like to write for a magazine, maybe a running magazine to tie it all together. If I go the philosophy route, then I would like to be a professor.”
Now, with All-America recognition under her belt, there is only one thing left to do. In her senior season, Christopher hopes to continue to grow as a runner and earn the prestigious honor in cross country as well.
Cleary has faith in his squad this season, especially in the talent and experience of Christopher.
“To have Kaylyn Christopher, who is a returning All-American in the mile indoors, is great,” Cleary said. “She has been all-region twice in cross country and she has been to the national championships three times. In terms of where she falls, she will write her own destiny. She ran a 4:40 mile, she became an All-American and she was on the DMR team. There is nothing that should stop her.”
During the offseason, the thought of her senior year, another All-America honor and a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament weighed heavily on Christopher’s mind as she began to train.
With only a few months separating cross country and track, runners have to readjust training regimens and focus the specific sport for that respective season.
In this case, Christopher, who is used to running low mileage events, more specifically the mile, now has to increase training.
“It hit me this offseason that the other seniors and I are returning as the front runners of the team and we are now the older girls who need to set examples,” Christopher said. “It is a little bit of pressure but good pressure.
“I have always been a low mileage person compared to the rest of our team. I usually average around 50 or 55 miles a week, where some of our girls are out there doing 80 or 90 miles. That is one thing that I have tried to step up. I started to increase my mileage and started doing some two-a-days running in the morning and evening. That is all new to me but I am hoping that it proves to be beneficial.”
Even though the Mountaineers took a big hit in losing their top three runners, the remainder of the squad has a good opportunity to made strides and come out and surprise competition this season.
Last season, Cleary put his future team to test at one of the most prominent races in the country, the Paul Short Invitational hosted by Lehigh.
“Last year at the Paul Short, we ran a team that was a preview of this year’s squad. It was one of the more prestigious races in the country to win and they did,” Cleary stated. “That was fantastic. As I go down our roster, I have a feeling a lot of coaches don’t know whether we are a great team, pretty good team or if we are dead. We are not dead and we are not a pretty good team – we are a very good team.”
Leading that “very good team” this season is Kaylyn Christopher as she runs to complete her career the same way she ended last season – as an All-American.
By Kelly Tuckwiller
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