PROVO, Utah – Since head coach Patrick Shane signed the 2012 recruiting class, he knew he landed something special to add to his returning athletes.
Despite finishing third in the West Coast Conference and seventh in the Mountain Regional, Shane knows with experience this team is going to emerge as a top contender in the nation.
“Clearly, we have a young team that has a lot of potential,” Shane said. “We ran well this season, but it is going to take experience to help us get to where we need. Because we had the best recruiting class we’ve ever had, we are only going to get better, and over the next few years, this team is going to take on an identity it didn’t have this year.”
Because the team did not finish in the top two at regionals, the Cougars did not qualify for the NCAA meet. According to Shane, they are disappointed, but this experience gives them the extra motivation to push themselves in preparation for next season.
One of the characteristics of the women’s team the past few years is one or two runners have stood out as the team’s top individuals and excelled in the championship races. All-American runners like Morgan Haws, Cecily Lemmon-Lew and Kassi Anderson are a few from recent history.
“We consistently have great runners,” Shane said, “but we need to get back to having five or six great runners instead of one or two. That’s how it was when we won multiple NCAA Championships.”
This year’s standout figure was freshman Natalie Shields who finished first for BYU in all of her four races. She also finished as one of the top freshmen overall finishing sixth in Ohio, her first collegiate race; 54th in Wisconsin; fourth at the WCC Championships and 14th during the Mount Region Championships.
“Natalie will only get better and is well on her way to becoming an All-American,” Shane said. “But having one standout runner is something I think will change in the future. That’s what was so great about our recruiting class this year is their times were all so close together.”
Shields, however, is not the only athlete with the potential of becoming a top runner. The only obstacle the other athletes face is time.
“We have several runners who did not compete at all this year due to injury that are just as good as Natalie,” Shane said. “The younger runners who did compete did a great job in their first year, but it may take another year for them to fully develop.”
Two of the injured runners are freshman Erica Birk and sophomore Kodi Kleven. Birk, whose mother was a two-time All-American at BYU in the late 80s, sat this season out due to a foot injury but has recently begun training again. During the high school BYU Invitational this past year, Birk, along with Shields and Ashleigh Warner, broke the 1,600-meter state record with a time of 4:51.03.
“Consistently, the athletes who have the best mile times are the ones who become the best cross-country runners,” Shane said. “Erica has the potential to be better than her mother was when she was here.”
Kleven, a transfer from Utah Valley University, also sat this past season out for health reasons but is preparing for competition this next season. According to coach Shane, Kleven is a real talent and will provide needed leadership for a young team.
In addition to Shields’ success as a newcomer, the two other significant stories of the year revolve around Rachel Stewart and Kathryn Vidmar.
Stewart, a walk-on freshman from Great Falls, Mont., competed in six races for the Cougars and finished the season 18th in the conference championships and 60th at regionals.
“Even though Rachel was a walk-on this year, she led our team in most of our workouts and several races,” Shane said. “In every race, she put blinders on and got to work. She showed her team how to work for something she really wanted, and because of that work ethic, she’s going to be an All-American some day along with Natalie.”
Vidmar, a senior from Trabuco Canyon, Calif., was also a walk-on at the beginning of her time at BYU. She did not travel with the team most of her career but made it her goal to be apart of the travel team and run in the championships this season.
“Kathryn is a Cinderella story,” Shane said. “She came to me at the beginning of the season and told me she wanted to compete in the final six races. ‘I know I can do it,’ she said. She started out slow, but came to me midway through and asked me to give her another shot. The best part is she made the most of her opportunity. To see her achieve her goal is one of my most rewarding experiences in my 33 years of coaching.”
Despite the youth and inexperience of the team, the Cougars did have some depth from senior captain Michaelanne Laurent and junior Lindsey Sowards Neilson.
Laurent, from Las Vegas, Nev., maintained her spot as a top two or three runner for BYU throughout the season and provided a consistent performance in every race. She finished 31st in Toledo, 88th in Wisconsin, 22nd in the conference championships and 46th at regionals.
Nielson, an Alamosa, Colo., native, also maintained a spot as a top two or three runner for BYU this year after spending much of her time injured during previous cross-country seasons.
“Lindsey is a firecracker,” Shane said. “She really opened up this year, and it was obvious she felt comfortable about who she was as a runner. She will only become more expressive in and out of her races, which is something our team will need.”
Overall, Shane felt the highlight of the 2012 season was helping the new and returning runners continue to develop as runners and find their fit on the team.
“This is a fun group to coach,” Shane said. “All of these athletes have great attitudes and are undaunted about what lies ahead. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for, and because of their attitudes we’re going to take off in the coming years.”
Steven Tew is an SID at BYU Athletic Communications. He can be contacted at [email protected],