CU Buffs cross country women’s team falters, finishes third at NCAA championships

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Barely a half mile into Saturday’s 6-kilometer NCAA cross country championship, it was clear that Colorado’s women’s team was in trouble.

The Buffs were supposed to be the strongest squad ever assembled in CU’s long and storied history. But by the time all seven runners staggered across the finish line, they knew the final score would be far closer than any of them ever imagined.

“They were out a little too tentatively, in fact a lot too tentatively, and then it was a catch-up race the whole way,” said CU coach Mark Wetmore.

In the end, CU tallied 134 points for third place, a crushing end to a season that began with promise and towering expectations. They were nine behind the 125 scored by Oregon — a team the Buffs had beaten in late October at the Pac-12 Championships — and eight behind Michigan’s 126. In cross country, the low score wins.

Colorado’s depth from its first through seventh runners, expected to be a firewall against a surge from any of the other top teams, could not survive when CU’s top runner, Erin Clark, suffered one of the worst races of her collegiate career. She finished 133rd overall and 105th in team scoring. In mid-October, she was second at the Pre Nationals meet here.

“I feel really awful right now because I didn’t do my job for this team today, and I wish I could have,” Clark, a senior from Eugene, Ore., said through tears. “The gun went off, and pretty quickly it went downhill from there. I don’t really know why. Within the first mile, something about my legs, they just felt so heavy.”

That the Buffs were still that close to a team title speaks to the power of their team running. The spread from its first scoring runner, sophomore Dani Jones, to its fifth runner, freshman Tabor Scholl, was just 10.8 seconds.

“Our front-runner was having a hard day, and I think it kind of shook us all. We were a little confused during the race,” Jones said.

Oregon’s and Michigan’s spreads were 47.1 and 54 seconds between runners. But without someone in the top 10, winning became immensely more difficult for the Buffs.

“Every race is different, and every race requires a different strategy,” Wetmore said. “There’s races when we do tell them absolutely, be very careful, leave it until the second half. It’s not what we told them today. But no one led them up. They waited too long, and then they couldn’t catch up.”

Jones finished 22nd overall. Junior Kaitlyn Benner, a Monarch graduate, was CU’s second runner, sophomore Mackenzie Caldwell was next 39th overall, freshman Sage Hurta was 40th and Tabor Scholl was 42nd. Hurta and School were the fifth and sixth freshmen among the race’s 250 finishers.

“We had some very good races today. Dani was very good, MacKenzie Caldwell was excellent, the two freshmen were excellent,” Wetmore said. “We’ve got a good future.”

Colorado runners

4 Katie Rainsberger FR Oregon 4 19:51.1
22 Dani Jones SO Colorado 17 20:14.2
26 Kaitlyn Benner JR Colorado 20 20:15.6
39 Mackenzie Caldwell SO Colorado 31 20:23.8
40 Sage Hurta FR Colorado 32 20:24.1
42 Tabor Scholl FR Colorado 34 20:24.9
43 Makena Morley SO Colorado 35 20:27.6
48 Jaci Smith SO Air Force 39 20:30.0
74 Samantha Skold SR Air Force 57 20:42.1
121 Gillespie Carina JR Air Force 93 20:55.3
133 Erin Clark SR Colorado 105 20:58.4
142 Janelle Lincks SR Colorado State 21:01.0
187 Lindy Long SR Air Force 155 21:21.6
211 Darby Gilfillan JR Colorado State 21:39.3
219 Lindsey Blanks FR Air Force 183 21:50.3
237 Giulianna Vessa JR Air Force 201 22:26.6
243 Katherine Burnham JR Air Force 207 22:52.8