Western Washington University cross country runner Cory Johnson wasn’t supposed to compete at the NCAA Division II Regional meet. He was an alternate, only deemed the seventh- or eighth-best runner on the squad.
He was only in his second year as a Viking and the first season he redshirted. He was young and just barely slower than the rest of the Vikings squad. But when a runner was held out of the regional meet after getting sick, Johnson was called upon.
It didn’t go well. Johnson ran the 10-kilometer course in 33 minutes, 32 seconds. The second-year runner finished behind all his teammates and 49th overall.
“Regionals was a big meet. We had to do well to qualify for nationals,” coach Pee Wee Halsell said in a phone interview. “He was nervous and his performance wasn’t what it could have been.”
The Vikings were still able to finish fourth, qualifying for nationals for the seventh straight year. The only problem for Johnson? He was still just an alternate and his showing at regionals didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
But when Tanner Boyd went down with injury before nationals, Johnson once again had to step up, and that’s exactly what he did.
He ran a minute faster at the national championship than he did at regionals and finished second among Viking athletes, 116th overall.
“I felt ashamed and embarrassed, like I didn’t belong after regionals,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “But nationals was super exciting. It was huge being the youngest guy among veterans. I learned a lot.”
After his performance on the biggest stage, Johnson enters the 2014 season as one of the veterans, a captain and likely a huge contributor to a team looking to get back to nationals for the eighth straight time.
Johnson knows what it’s like to compete on the big stage. He has seen the best runners in the country and now, he wants to be one of them.
“The goal individually is always to push yourself,” Johnson said. “Top 40 is all-american. I want to be close to that, if not be an all-american by the time I leave. It’s something to strive for.”
Despite being in his third year, Johnson is only a sophomore by eligibility, which means he’ll have plenty of time to get to the top.
For now, Johnson’s focus is on the team and being a top-10 program. After all the success the WWU men’s cross country team has had, expectations are always high.
But this year’s squad just might have the depth to follow through with those expectations after a disappointing 20th-place finish at nationals last year.
“The dedication Cory shows is becoming the norm,” Halsell said. “We have a lot of depth on this squad. The kids know it takes a lot of hard training to make an impact on this team.”
Johnson said the team goes 16 runners deep that can make a push for a spot among the top Viking runners, and with a squad that loves to run as a pack, depth is essential in pushing everyone to get better.
At the top, the returners alongside Johnson are Isaac Griffith, Tabor Reedy, Jonathan Quimby and Nathan Richards. All went to nationals last season.
“Most teams are lucky to have three or four guys,” Johnson said. “Here, we got 16 guys. That’s intimidating to other teams.”
Depth is the reason the Viking men have become a household name at the national tournament and the Viking women are quickly catching up, Halsell said.
The women have gone to the national tournament four times in the past six years, but the expectation is still the same as the men — finish top 10 in the country.
All-american Katelyn Steen returns for her senior season. She finished 34th at nationals last year. Taylor Guenther, Haley O’Connor and Austin Reiter are also runners Halsell highlighted as key contributors.