BURNABY — Simon Fraser has become one of the frontrunners in the world of NCAA Div. 2 women’s cross-country running.
The question now, as the 2017 season enters its Triple Crown stretch drive of conference, region and national championship races?
Can the homegrown program, which is off to its best start in school history and currently holds the No. 5 national ranking, continue to contend at the front of the pack?
Or will their course to the top be disrupted by top rival schools boasting huge numbers of international runners?
That question will be front-and-centre beginning on Saturday morning (10 a.m.) when the Clan compete in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship meet at Bellingham’s Lake Padden Park.
Chief traditional rival Alaska Anchorage, which features three Kenyans (including GNAC defending champion Caroline Kurgat) and one runner from France, have only raced three times this season and took a bit of a training break in their season.
As well, Kurgat did not compete in their only head-to-head clash with the Clan at Western Oregon’s Ash Creek Invite back on Sept. 8.
Nonetheless, Alaska Anchorage has won the GNAC title in seven of the past eight seasons. Simon Fraser won in 2014, and has placed second four times including last season.
SFU will later race Nov. 4 at the West Region championships in Monmouth, Ore., where the current No. 1-ranked team, Cap Baptist, is expected to be the favourite.
The Lancers’ roster is already primed for next season’s move to Div. 1 with three runners from Hungary, two from France and one apiece from Kenya, the U.K., Poland and South Africa.
Simon Fraser did reach far to bring in Newfoundland native Julia Howley, who has become the team’s top runner, but beyond her, it’s a B.C.-based team, and that is a point of pride for SFU head coach Brit Townsend.
“I don’t have the money to bring in international athletes, so we depend on our strong, local kids that we bring in and develop,” said Townsend, who this season has watched her team, quite incredibly, win all four of its races, including the University of Washington’s Sundodger Invitational, and the Roy Griak Invite at the University of Minnesota.
“Our girls are not superstars when they come to SFU,” Townsend continued. “So it’s a long, slow process. I try to instil patience in them. I let them know that they will be working harder than ever before, but that they will be given every opportunity within a high-performance environment to reach their potential.”
A CHEMISTRY BEST LABELED ‘UNIQUE’
To offer some idea as to how hard it is to win four straight cross-country team race titles in a row to open a season, consider that over a star-studded coaching career which is now into its third decade, it’s the first time Townsend has achieved the feat.
And not to suggest that winning four races in a row is tougher, but Townsend won an incredible five straight NAIA national women’s cross-country running titles without ever starting a season like this one.
Sure, it’s not going to be an easy feat if you enter the Stanford Invitational every season, an event the Clan has competed in many times in the past. But it’s still a huge accomplishment.
So the best way to describe this season, the Clan’s seventh at NCAA Div. 2, is to call it unique.
And that is also the best way to describe the women’s team, which the coach openly admits is far from the deepest collection of runners she has ever assembled on Burnaby Mountain.
“We don’t have a lot of depth,” said Townsend. “If we lose one of our top five, we could be in big, big trouble. We barely won our last race.”
That was the Western Washington Classic, also in Bellingham, and on that day, junior Chelsea Ribeiro sat out with a hip flexor strain as SFU won by a mere two points.
Yet what seems clear based on the sufficient sample size of four races, with the Sundodger and Griak representing the best quality of competition, is the consistency the Clan ladies have brought.
Howley, a senior, has been spectacular and despite her eastern address is clearly now considered one of the local girls. She finished first in the season-opening Ash Creek meet, third at Sundodger, second at the Roy Griak and third at Western Washington.
In fact with the top five finishers scoring in each race, SFU has had only two of its 20 combined scoring positions over four races come outside of the top 20.
Junior Addy Townsend (Coquitlam-Dr. Charles Best), the coach’s daughter and an 800m track specialist, has finished 2-12-5-4 over the four events.
Senior Miryam Bassett (Nanaimo District) has gone 4-13-13-9, pure freshman Olivia Willett (PoCo-Riverside) 3-9-23-8, and junior Ribeiro (Surrey-Semiahmoo) 5-14-37.
With Ribeiro scratched for the last race, Sophie Dodd (Vancouver-West Point Grey) ran to a 20th-place finish in Bellingham.
A LOCAL CONNECTION
If there was one meet which convinced Townsend of the chemistry of her 2017 group, it was the Roy Griak event in Minnesota.
Her top five of Howley-Townsend-Bassett-Willett-Ribeiro were separated by less than a minute, the narrow gap strongly suggesting the success of the pre-race plan.
“The goal there was to keep people connected and run as a team,” said Townsend, “to look at the person ahead of you and get as close as you could to them and not worry about who is first, but more where we fit as a team.”
Moving forward, it seems like the perfect blueprint for success, especially for this unique group of harriers.
In their top six, excluding the Newfoundland native Howley, they are Coquitlam, Nanaimo, Coquitlam, Surrey and Vancouver, and before last week had attained the program’s highest-ever national NCAA ranking of No. 4.
“Unless someone is really off, or gets sick, they are pretty dependable,” Townsend says of her team, including those who don’t regularly score in races but do their part to raise the overall level of the team in practices and through their positive support. “It’s like if they run the way they have been, we’ll be OK.”
Even if that winning streak doesn’t continue.
“Are we going to be undefeated all the way through?” asks Townsend. “Probably not. But our races have given us good experience and showed us that anything can happen on a given day and that it’s all a clean slate once we get to nationals.”
The SFU men’s team will also compete at the GNAC championships (11 a.m.) on Saturday in Bellingham.
While not ranked nationally, the Clan do sit ninth in the West Region and have had an outstanding season of their own, winning at Ash Creek, placing second at Sundodger, eighth at the Roy Griak and third at Western Washington.
The Clan will be led by Rowan Doherty, Sean Miller and Oliver Jorgensen.
The NCAA D2 nationals for men and women will run Nov. 18 at Evansville, Ind.
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