When the season began, CU cross country coach Mark Wetmore didn’t mince words when he voiced his expectations for this year’s CU women’s team.
"Frankly I think it might be our best team ever,” Wetmore said. “We expect to finish very high in the national championships.”
Considering Wetmore has coached two national championship women’s teams (2000 and 2004), and last year’s team finished second in the NCAA championships, that is no small set of expectations. But given the fact the latest national rankings had the Buffs a unanimous No. 1 pick in the nation, it’s also not an unreasonable projection.
“On Nov. 1, that’s still an accurate statement,” CU associate head coach Heather Burroughs said Tuesday of Wetmore’s preseason prognostication. “Hopefully on Nov. 20, it will still be accurate.”
Nov. 20, of course, would be one day after the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the Buffs hope to add to their already healthy collection of NCAA titles—and, so far, the Buffs are on the right path.
Last weekend, the Colorado women dominated the Pac-12 championships—considered to be among the toughest conferences in the nation—by running away with the team title for the second year in a row. CU finished with just 33 points, 41 ahead of rival Washington, which entered the race as the nation’s second-ranked team, while the CU men won their sixth consecutive conference title.
Individually, the CU women had the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in Erin Clark, Dani Jones and Kaitlyn Benner; as well as the ninth (Makena Morley), 15th (Sage Hurta), 16th (Mackenzie Caldwell) and 17th (Melanie Nun) runners. Those finishes helped CU record the third-largest margin of victory in conference history.
But those results by no means have come as a surprise. Wetmore and Burroughs have watched the development of these Buffs over the last two years and have seen the potential this group has had.
“In the last three years we’ve been seventh, seventh and second in the NCAA [championships],” Burroughs said. “Thirteen months ago, I was saying this is a very good women’s team. But I knew the next year we were going to be at another level. I could see it happening; Mark could see it happening. We’re very pleased with the success we’re having, but we’re not surprised.”
Indeed, this year’s women’s team is the product of a culture that has been developed over the long haul by Wetmore and Burroughs.
“I think CU has always had a culture we could be proud of—but this women’s team in particular has taken it to another level,” Burroughs said. “It’s absolutely been a process. We have talented runners; we’ve been lucky in that we’ve stayed pretty healthy and many of our runners have years of good, uninterrupted training.
“But most of all, I think we just have some really righteous, hard-working, happy people—and happy is an important part of that.”
What’s quite clear is the Buffs believe in their coaching staff. They are willing to invest in a process built on dedication and discipline, because they have seen what kind of returns such an investment can produce. Since 2000, CU has won seven men’s and women’s national championships, and just last summer CU’s runners saw two Buffs from those teams collect bronze medals at the Rio Olympics.
“The head coach sets the tone, sets the ethic,” Burroughs said. “If you have a coaching staff that is competent and confident, you don’t have to have the athletes making a lot of decisions. That culture and ethic begins with Mark, and it spreads throughout the team.”
Burroughs pointed to last summer as an example. Wetmore had to miss the first couple of days of CU cross-country practice because he was in Rio, coaching Jenny Simpson and Emma Coburn to their bronze medals.
“But as soon as the events ended there, he called and said, ‘I cannot wait to get home to my cross-country team,’” Burroughs recalled. “He’s relentless and he’s totally invested; and as a result, the team has become relentless and totally invested.”
One big part of Wetmore’s and Burroughs’ philosophy includes teaching life lessons, as well as how to run fast—and that includes excelling in the classroom.
Last fall, the CU women had the highest team GPA of any CU sport that competes in the fall, producing a 3.389 grade-point average. Last week, at the same time the Buffs were sweeping the men’s and women’s Pac-12 titles on the course, they were also sweeping the conference’s scholar awards, as Clark and Ben Saarel were named the women’s and men’s Pac-12 Cross Country Scholar Athletes of the Year.
Clearly, the discipline and dedication required to be a national-class distance runner translate directly to the classroom.
“One usually complements the other,” Burroughs said. “In general, there’s a maturity and an ethic with our team. That’s more of what we preach. We don’t have to give them speeches about going to class and taking school seriously. We’re lucky that this is an academically-motivated group.”
The goal is to send their runners out into the world equipped to succeed as more than “just” competitive runners, Burroughs said.
"Our message to them is: 'Are you becoming the person you want to be? We are preparing you so that, at age 23, you don’t go home and move into your parents’ basement. That’s our primary job here . . . to have you ready for grown-up life and your degree in hand.'"
But another rather important part of the CU coaching staff’s job is to win championships, and the Buffs are now headed toward the most important part of their season. They will next compete in the NCAA Mountain Regional on Nov. 11 in Logan, Utah, then head to the Nov. 19 NCAA Championships in Terre Haute.
“What our women have done in training, what they’ve done in racing, it’s fair to compare them if not elevate them over our previous teams,” Burroughs said. “Now, our job as coaches is to help them continue on that path."