After running near or above 100 miles in the summer heat, countless laps around the track and early-morning runs, for the Weber State University cross-country teams, it all came down to one race. That race was held at Shneiter’s Riverside Golf Course, where some of the best up-and-coming runners in the nation took to the course in the NCAA Mountain Region cross-country meet on Friday.
The men started off the action with snow still falling on the ground and a cool breeze in the air. The tension was high as the runners warmed up in anticipation of the start. Once the gun was off, it was all business.
WSU’s own Tip Worob was the early leader for the first mile, closely followed by the rest of the pack. Many wondered when Texas Tech University’s Kennedy Kithuka was going to make his move, but he was biding his time. He and Anthony Rotich of the University of Texas at El Paso broke away from the pack, but it wasn’t long until it was a one-man show. Kithuka won the individual title.
At the end, it was Northern Arizona University that walked away with the men’s title, narrowly beating out the University of Colorado. They were followed by the University of New Mexico and Brigham Young University. All four teams qualified for nationals.
Trevor Ricks was the top runner for the Wildcats. He finished 48th overall, completing the 10-kilometer course in 30:40.7, while Worob finished 65th, 31:19.1. Preston Johnson had another solid performance, running 31:58.9 and placing 84th. He was the team’s third-place runner for the second meet in a row.
Coach Paul Pilkington was at it again this year, once again showing he can recruit and nurture runners with the best of them, especially in state. Summer Harper wasn’t a household name entering the season, as all that hype was put on Amber Schultz (nee Henry). After her terrific outdoor season, she came close to making her first national team. But with Schultz battling a lingering foot injury, Harper quietly won the Big Sky Conference championship. That win was just what she needed to reach one of her goals: qualify for the national championships.
The women’s race included Olympian Shayla Kipp, a Utah native, who was just finding her stride after a long summer of racing. Kipp was in the lead pack that included Harper, Schultz and a handful of other runners. The pack only started to thin out near the later parts of the race as the CU Buffaloes decided to distance themselves from the rest of the field.
As Schultz fell back to the chase pack, Harper held her own against some of the best in the nation. Going into the last kilometer, the lead pack started to thin out, but Harper was in position to make the trips to nationals if she held on.
Harper finished eighth in a time of 20:45.5 over the 6k course, taking one of the four automatic qualifying spots. Schultz placed 23rd, giving her All-Region honors, while Jamie Stokes and Hailey Ricks placed 28th and 30th respectively. The team took fourth overall, behind CU, UNM and BYU. That spot left them out of nationals, but Pilkington was still pleased with their season and said he is excited to see the team as the women continue to mature and progress.
“I am well pleased for Summer to make it to nationals,” he said. “For a freshman to make it is really good. I told Summer to put herself up in position and that top 10, then sit and relax. Just under a mile, she was up there, and I just told her that she was going to make it.”
Harper entered the season hoping to contribute to an already-solid women’s team. After each race, she started to run faster and feel stronger. The confidence grew, and she ran one of her best races in one of the most important points of the season.
“I felt like I raced it smart, and it was exciting being up front and trying to hold it,” Harper said. “The last little bit was hard, but I did my best and that’s all that matters. You have to realize that the race is almost four miles, just racing smart. Over the last couple of races I have started to realize my potential. After conference, I had the confidence that I could make it to nationals.”
Harper will travel to Terre Haute, Ind., to take part in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships on Nov. 23. The women’s race will begin at 11:10 a.m. and will be streamed live on NCAA.com.