Optimism is most always at its highest before the start of a season.
That certainly goes for Western Washington University's women's cross country team, which begins its season with the Central Washington Apple Ridge Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 7, in Yakima.
"We are looking very strong and very deep," said Katelyn Steen, WWU's top returning runner. "I think we have a lot more potential than we had last year."
And from what she's seen, she has good reason to feel that way.
At WWU's annual cross country training getaway this past week, Steen said eight runners posted times better than the Vikings' third-best runner last year. Depth isn't something this team is particularly short on, which bodes well for its high expectations.
"From No. 1 to the No. 7 runner, it's just really close. A lot closer than it was last year," coach Pee Wee Halsell said in a phone interview. "It looks like the depth is going to be there."
But not even a deep pool of talent would have changed WWU's fortunes during last year's run at regionals. Sweltering, 90-plus degree heat in early November in Kahuku, Hawaii., left many of Halsell's runners fighting extreme heat exhaustion, eventually leading to a seventh-place finish, two spots shy of making it to nationals.
Steen, who led WWU with a 28th-place finish at regionals, was so exhausted from the heat that she said she still doesn't remember the final half mile of the race. All she said she remembered was waking up with people surrounding her beyond the finish line, giving her care.
That experience has served as motivation for her throughout the offseason, though.
"Us not making it to nationals, due to a whole bunch of things going wrong at the same time, really made me want nothing more than to put all my time and energy to help get our team to nationals," she said.
Her increased training resulted in a 15-20 second improvement from where she was last year, she said.
"Katelyn looks great," Halsell said. "I expect these jumps each year, or that is what I hope."
Halsell saw similar jumps from multiple runners, including juniors Haley O'Connor and Mikhaila Thornton, as well as sophomores Austen Reiter and Taylor Guenther.
A big reason why he has seen such improvements, he said, was because a lot of his runners have gotten healthy.
"Mikhaila and Haley came in injured last year, and that really hurt our chances," Halsell said. "But they are healthy this year, and are looking really good."
With healthy runners and a deep stock of talent, Steen believes this year's squad can achieve a second trip to nationals over a three-year span.
2013 WWU WOMEN'S CROSS COUNTRY SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Sept. 7 at Central Washington Apple Ridge Invite (Yakima) 10 a.m.
Sept. 14 at Sundodger Invitational (Seattle) 9 a.m.
Sept. 21 at Eric Anderson Invitational (Spokane CC) 10 a.m.
Sept. 28 at Saint Martin's Invitational (Lacey) 10 a.m.
Oct. 12 WWU Classic Invitational (East Lake Padden) 10 a.m.
Oct. 26 GNAC Championships (Monmouth, Ore.) 10:30 a.m.
Nov. 9 NCAA Division II West Regional (Spokane) 10 a.m.
Nov. 23 NCAA Division II National Championships 10:30 a.m.
2013 WWU WOMEN'S CROSS COUNTRY ROSTER
Runner Year Hometown
Brenna Condon So. Snohomish
Anna Goad Fr. Buckley
Taylor Graham So. Burlington
Brittany Grant Fr. Port Townsend
Taylor Guenther So. Vancouver
Meghan Hoffman Jr. Covington
Haida Ikeda Sr. Issaquah
Maddy Jalbert So. Niwot, Co.
Kali Klotz-Brooks So. Cheney
Sofia Marikis Fr. Nine Mile Falls
Haley O'Connor Jr. Sammamish
Austen Reiter So. Langley
Katelyn Steen Jr. Sammamish
Lillianna Stelling Fr. Langley
Sara Taferre Fr. Vancouver
Mikhaila Thornton Jr. Bend, Ore.
Katherine Tyburcey Fr. Flagstaff, Ariz.
Arielle Walton Sr. Issaquah