All season long, Utah State cross-country's motto has been to "Be The First." On Saturday afternoon, they officially became the first.
Utah State has never sent a full team to the NCAA Cross Country National Championships, but this year, both the men's and women's teams are making their first appearances at the biggest race of the season.
"It's extremely special," said acting head cross-country coach Artie Gulden. "We talked a little bit yesterday that this has been the goal since we started. Two years ago the men were last in the conference and last in the region. The ladies were a little better than that, but nowhere near where we are now. To have them both achieve this is pretty special."
At the NCAA Mountain Regional Championships on Friday, the women placed fourth and the men took seventh. Members of the staff and the team were confident the women had done enough this season to earn an at-large bid, but there was still a sense of nervousness for the men's team.
"For the women, there weren't (any doubts)," said assistant coach Sarah Griggs. "I felt pretty confident with the women. For the men, a little bit. Being seventh in the region, that's a lot of teams to go from one region. I just wasn't sure. I didn't rest completely easy last night, but I felt pretty confident they were both going to get in."
But as an email arrived in Gulden's inbox shortly after 1 p.m., he read the list of the selected teams out loud, and with some emotion in his voice, he announced both USU's men's and women's teams had made the cut and earned at-large bids.
"It's great. It feels good, especially as a team to celebrate," said senior Dillon Maggard, who competed individually at nationals last year and earned All-American honors. "We put a lot of work into this season. Starting in the summer, everyone bought into the training that coach Gulden and coach Griggs gave to us, and we worked hard all summer and into the fall.
"All the work has paid off. We bought in, and we set goals at the beginning of the season that we would be the first team to nationals. And now we can finally say we are the first teams to go to nationals from Utah State."
Being the first Aggie teams to compete at the NCAA National Championship is a special feeling for everyone involved, but for those who have battled through injuries, like senior Tori Parkinson, it's almost hard to put into words.
"It makes it so worth it," Parkinson said. "It almost makes it a little better to know that it wasn't something that came naturally, that came easy. Something like this is so much more important when it literally took blood, sweat and tears and every kind of pain you can imagine to get here. It makes it so worth it."
This year, the women's team set a program-best national ranking, reaching as high as No. 12 in the USTFCCCA Coaches' Poll, while the men also set a new benchmark, reaching No. 19 in the same poll.
Throughout the season, the women's team collected three first-place finishes and finished in the top five in every race they competed in. Individually, junior Alyssa Snyder claimed three race titles, first-team all-Mountain West honors and all-region accolades.
On the men's side, the Aggies also claimed three team titles during the season, led by Maggard with two individual titles, first-team all-MW honors and a seventh-place finish at regionals to earn an all-region medal for the second-straight year.
The NCAA National Championship race will be held on Saturday, Nov. 18, and hosted by Louisville at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park with the women running at 8:45 a.m. MT and the men at 9:45 a.m.
Doug Hoffman is the associate athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.