When former Cavalier Catherine White claimed her second All-American distinction in cross country last November, it was a time of celebration for Virginia cross country.
It also marked the beginning of a period of massive uncertainty.
The finish line at “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky. signified not only the end of the 2012 season; it also signified the end of White’s eligibility and left a massive void for women’s coach Todd Morgan.
By the second weekend of February the team’s immediate prospects improved with the commitments of some of the nation’s best prep school distance runners. The results of the 2012 season, marred by injuries and a shortage of athletes, was not a strong selling point for Morgan. Instead, he pitched a program with the promise of much better days ahead.
“Last season was a struggle to keep things between the ditches,” Morgan said. “Recruiting people this good during a season that was a struggle was tough. Luckily, they believed in what we were trying to do, and that is how we were able to get it done.”
Labeling his recruiting class as “this good” might still represent a bit of an understatement. The 2013 class included eight state championships spread among three runners, a high school All-American and a member of team Canada during the 2012 World Junior Championships.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and have signed some good people with good credentials,” Morgan said. “But as a group, this is the best group I have ever gotten.”
Three of Morgan’s signees have burst onto the scene and made an immediate impact for the Cavaliers. A trio of freshmen, Maria Hauger, Sarah Fakler and Sara Sargent, finished sixth, ninth, and 14th, respectively, and contributed mightily to Virginia’s surprising win at the Panorama Farms Invitational.
The same trio then travelled to Terre Haute, Ind. for the Pre-National meet, a massive competition including more than 50 competing teams. The three ran well again, with Hauger’s 31st place finish supplementing senior Barbara Strehler’s 11th place effort to secure fourth place for the Cavaliers.
Hauger, a four-time cross country state champion from Shakopee, Minn., has refused to let go of Virginia’s number two spot since seizing it at Panorama Farms. Though unsurprised by her early ascendance, Hauger is trying not to dwell on it and instead focus on team-oriented objectives.
“I think about making everybody better during our workouts,” Hauger said. “Three or four of us come in so close together, and it is good to know that we have a [starting] five that is so talented.”
Hauger acknowledges the collegiate cross country landscape differs drastically from the high school environment, but not in the way one might suspect. She thinks running for Virginia might actually be easier than running for her high school.
“I’m never nervous, only excited.” Hauger said. “In high school I felt a lot of pressure to run well, but now I go up there and compete against some really good girls. It is really fun.”
The unification of a tight pack of five runners has spawned success for Virginia, now ranked No. 10. This was evidenced in Terre Haute, where all five Virginia runners placed in the top 60 in a field of 340 finishers.
To Morgan’s delight, the individual pieces of the team have meshed together well. He knew what to expect out of returners Strehler and Stevens, but was uncertain about the impact his freshman corps would have in their first year.
“You want to be cautious in your expectations because everything is new to them, but I knew they were really talented and they were competitors,” Morgan said. “Once I was around them for a while, nothing they do surprised me anymore.”
For Virginia’s freshmen each day presents a new set of challenges. This weekend’s ACC Championship in Winston-Salem, N.C. presents yet another challenge to overcome. Fakler, a three-time cross country state champion and Gatorade Athlete of the Year for Xavier Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., is drawing on her experience competing in large, national meets in high school for confidence going into ACCs.
“There will always be nerves, but you just get over it,” Fakler said. “I try to keep the same pre-race routine, go out, do my best, and represent U.Va.”
The Virginia women have been tremendously successful during 2013, but they are not ready to rest yet. Racing against the likes of No. 5 Florida State and a plethora of competitive ACC teams will be no cake walk. But the Virginia women, including their precocious freshmen, have already proven their talent and toughness on the course.
“Our goal is to finish in the top four and be a podium team,” Morgan said. “We’re doing well, but we still have a ways to go.”