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CU cross country: Erin Clark, Kaitlyn Benner lead Buffs women to runner-up finish

  • Colorado sophomore Kaitlyn Benner runs to a 16th-place finish in...

    Dylan Buell / For

    Colorado sophomore Kaitlyn Benner runs to a 16th-place finish in the NCAA Championships on Saturday in Louisville, Ky.

  • Colorado runner Erin Clark is congratulated by Joe Holvey after...

    Dylan Buell/ For

    Colorado runner Erin Clark is congratulated by Joe Holvey after the NCAA Championships on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Clark finished 11th to lead the CU women to a second-place team finish.



LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kaitlyn Benner learned a thing or two when she ran the course at E.P. Tom Sawyer Park a little more than a month ago.

Though Benner, a sophomore with the Colorado women’s cross country team, finished a respectable 15th at the Pre-National Invitational during the Buffaloes’ last visit to Kentucky, she was left to ruminate what could have been after feeling far from satisfied with the start she put together.

Benner more than made amends on Saturday at the NCAA finals. Turning in a more aggressive start in a far more loaded field, Benner placed 16th on the heels of teammate Erin Clark’s 11th-place finish, leading the Buffs to a second-place finish in the team race.

It was the CU women’s top finish at nationals since recording consecutive runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2006.

“Originally I wanted to get out pretty quick, since I didn’t in Pre-Nats and I paid for that,” Benner said. “I wanted to hang in there for about 3K before moving up. I probably got out at about 200th at Pre-Nats, so I definitely wanted to change that today. I think I did. We practiced just yesterday getting out quickly so you’re not caught behind everyone.”

While the chase for a three-peat national title by the men’s team has dominated the attention garnered by the CU cross country program this fall, Saturday’s performance capped a 2015 season for the women’s squad that was nearly as impressive.

The Buffs finished second at the Pre-National meet before collecting titles at the Pac-12 Championships and last week’s Mountain Regional. Saturday’s effort marked the fourth time the CU women have finished second.

CU finished with 129 points, well behind women’s champion New Mexico (49) yet also far outpacing third-place Oregon (214).

“I was a little worried about getting off the line quickly, because I’ve struggle a little bit with that in the past,” Clark said. “We wanted to show that there are two really good programs here, and it’s just been little steps forward for us getting better each year. I had some races in the middle of the season I wasn’t as thrilled with, so I wanted to come out here and have a race I was really proud of again. I think I did that today.

“That’s kind of what I learned — there’s a lot more on the line here, but every race is essentially the same test of your own fitness. So you prepare the same way and do the same things. You try to just relax and see what you can do.”

Clark’s secured her 11th-place finish with a 6-kilometer time of 20 minutes, 5.4 seconds. Benner came in at 20:07.7. The remainder of scoring contingent from the CU lineup was rounded out by senior Maddie Alm (47th), freshman Dani Jones (49th) and redshirt sophomore Melanie Nun (65th).

Additionally, freshman Val Constien came in at No. 136 and junior Carrie Verdon placed 146th.

“They were seventh a year ago but way, way back,” CU coach Mark Wetmore said. “New Mexico, as we knew, was a head taller than everyone else. But our team did fine. They did everything we asked them. And they’re all back but one, so we’ll be good again next year.”

Pat Rooney: or