Summer Harper nats
(Source: Robert Casey)
Weber State University cross-country runner Summer Harper (41) runs in the Mountain Regional Championships. Harper ran in the NCAA Cross-Country Nationals on Saturday, finishing in 156th place.

On a cold, windy morning in Terre Haute, Ind., the NCAA’s best runners converged, ready to battle to see who would be crowned champions. Weber State University’s own Summer Harper ran in the women’s race after her eighth-place finish at the Mountain Regionals a week earlier.

Harper ended her terrific freshman year by winning a conference championship, becoming All-Region and qualifying for nationals.

Coach Paul Pilkington said that as Harper continued throughout the season, she gained confidence and could do some damage later in the year. For her to qualify for nationals as a freshman is something that hopefully will continue to build her confidence.

“I felt Summer ran all right, especially with the conditions,” Pilkington said. “The course had been flooded that week, so adjustments were made, and it was just new for her. I feel she had a great freshman year. We have never had a freshman win the conference meet before. It is always hard to tell how the freshmen are going develop in their first year, but she exceeded the expectations.”

Harper said she learned a lot from competing in such a big race, and at the end of the day, she left it all out on the course.

“It’s kind of a starting point, so I can do better next year,” Harper said. “You just have to kind of take it one step at a time and realize that there’s only so much you can control. I can’t control the other runners or the weather. I can just do the best I can do.”

Harper went on to finish 156th in a time of 21:41.1 on a course that was actually 110 meters short due to the rain the Midwest had received throughout the week. She wasn’t able to get out as strongly as the team had planned due to the starting line being moved and shortened.

“Usually there is room at the starting line for 5-6 runners in each box,” Pilkington said. “But with the start being moved, it changed all of that. Summer was basically in the third row, and with the mud and everything, it was hard to get going from the start.”

The race was won by Abbey D’Agostino from Dartmouth College, who has now won titles in cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track. She crossed the line in a time of 20:00.3, nearly three seconds ahead of Emma Bates of Boise State University. D’Agostino got progressively better each year by placing third in 2011, second in 2012, and finally breaking through to win the title this year.

Providence College took the women’s title on the frigid tundra, a year removed from being declared the winner to later find out it had actually taken second place. Its score of 141 put it ahead of the University of Arizona, which was trying for the school’s first cross-country title.

WSU did not have any qualifiers for the men’s race, but the Big Sky Conference was on display as Northern Arizona University tried to win the team title. NAU entered the meet ranked first in the nation ahead of the University of Colorado, Oklahoma State University and Brigham Young University.

The individual favorite was Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech University, who just two weeks ago put on a show at Riverside Golf Course in Ogden. But with the weather and conditions, there was a handful of other runners who could challenge for the title.

Kithuka made the race honest from the start as he took the lead early, especially surprising with the frigid conditions. Only two men followed: Kemoy Campbell of Arkansas and Edward Cheserek of the University of Oregon. Campbell eventually fell off pace.

It seemed as if Kithuka ran away from Cheserek as well until both runners hit the 8-kilometer mark, where everything changed. Cheserek blasted by Kithuka and opened up a huge gap right away. Cheserek crossed the line in 29:41.1, becoming the first UO runner to win a cross-country title his freshman year. Even the great Alberto Salazar, Steve Prefontaine and Galen Rupp were unable to accomplish that feat.

The men’s team title was much closer than the women’s, as UC did enough in the last two kilometers to beat out NAU by a score of 149-169. The Buffs were led by freshman Ben Saarel, a graduate of Park City High School, who placed eighth overall. OSU, the two-time defending champion, placed third, right in front of BYU, which made the podium in fourth place.

The Wildcats will now prepare for the indoor track season that will start on Jan. 17.

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