It's all kind of starting to come together now. —Utah cross country coach Kyle Kepler
SALT LAKE CITY — Sarah Feeny can’t always push her body to its limits for personal goals or glory.
But if she thinks of her University of Utah teammates who are counting on her best effort every race, the Ogden native finds she’s capable of much more than she thought.
“You get to that last straightway sometimes, and think, ‘Oh, I’m so tired,’” the sophomore said. “And then it’s like, ‘Nope, I can’t let my teammates down.’ And that (mentality) definitely pushes everyone on the team.”
Hiring a new assistant coach and pushing the team concept in what’s perceived to be an individual sport has the University of Utah women’s cross-country team making history this season. For the first time in school history, the team is nationally ranked (No. 19) and expecting to make waves at Pac-12 and regional races the next few weeks.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Feeny said of the national ranking. “This is what I came here for, and it’s finally coming together this year.”
Redshirt sophomore Hannah McInturff said that instead of just setting and working toward individual goals, the women focused on what they could accomplish together.
“We had a lot of really good girls, but we were a little disconnected,” McInturff said. “We weren’t as cohesive as a team. Everyone had really good goals, really good intentions, but we weren’t as team-oriented.”
So how does teamwork help individual runners improve?
“This is what’s allowed our team to be a lot more successful,” she said. “Every single girl isn’t just working for themselves. We’re working for the greater goals that the team set. We’re 100 percent all in. And we know we’re in it together.”
The runners train in partners or groups, and she said that gives them confidence when they race.
“Sometimes, if I’m in the top half of the race, I feel uncomfortable, wondering if I should be there,” she said. “And then I say, ‘Hey, Sarah is here and she’s my training partner.’ So I think it’s a huge, huge self-confidence thing. It’s such a powerful thing when you’re running with your teammate next to you. It takes a load off.”
Utah coach Kyle Kepler said the team's success is something they've been building over the last few years.
"It's all kind of starting to come together now," Kepler said.
The Utes will compete in the Pac-12 championship meet Friday, Oct. 30, in Colfax, Washington. If they compete well there, they could earn a spot in the NCAA Regionals on Friday, Nov. 13, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Utes aren’t the only ranked team in Utah, with BYU women earning a No. 14 ranking, while BYU men are ranked No. 4 in the country. Weber State’s women are ranked No. 27 in the country.
The BYU women’s ranking is their highest since 2006, when they were ranked No. 12.
“I think it’s well-deserved,” said BYU head coach Patrick Shane. “I’d just say congratulations to our group of young women who ran so hard and earned that lofty ranking. The key there is the nine-second split between our first and fourth runners in Wisconsin last week. When you’ve got nine seconds between your top four, you know you’ve got a good team.”
The Cougars compete for a conference championship this weekend in Spokane, Washington.
“Our goal this year is to win the conference championship,” Shane said. “That’s next week, and I think we’re well on track to have a great shot to do that.”
Shane called this the best season the Cougars have had in a decade and said their goals are much loftier than this weekend's conference meet.
“We’re excited to run and to find out just how good we are at the national championship,” Shane said. “I’ve felt all along that we’re a top-15 team, and how much better are we than that? That’s what we’re going to find out.”