TERRE HAUTE, Indiana — Moments after she helped the University of Arkansas women’s cross country team to its first national championship on Saturday at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, Taylor Werner was surrounded by familiar faces from Ste. Genevieve.
She shared the culmination of her four-year quest in the sport of cross country at the University of Arkansas with family and friends, including teammates who had joined her as part of Ste. Genevieve High School’s girls cross country and track dynasty of earlier this decade.
“We all stay connected, and they have my back,” Werner said of her fellow Dragons. “They know what it takes. My old teammates from high school, they know. To see them here and know that they were coming, it meant the world. To see them at the finish line was surreal.”
Many things were surreal about Saturday for Werner and her University of Arkansas teammates, who held off Brigham Young University by six points, 96-102, to capture the elusive national championship.
Werner finished fourth, covering the 6 kilometers in a time of 20 minutes, 11.1 seconds. She was second on her team behind fellow senior Katie Izzo, who finished in 19:59.3. Weini Kelati of New Mexico won the race in 19:47.5 with Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson 10 seconds behind her.
Lance Harter, the Razorbacks’ Hall of Fame coach who has led the program for 30 years, called the team championship “the crowning achievement.”
He had led the Arkansas women’s indoor track team to the school’s first women’s national championship in any sport in 2015, and they added three more crowns — including the indoor and outdoor track and field championships earlier this calendar year.
But they had not had a top-three finish in cross country since 1999, when they did it four times that decade.
Werner was a part of her third NCAA Division I national championship in nine months, but this one carried a little more emotion.
“This is our first one ever,” she said in reference to the cross country program. “I still can’t fathom it right now. I’m in shock.
“We were here [in Terre Haute] my freshman year and a lot of people didn’t do very well, so to be able to come back and finish on a high note is a really good feeling. We made it, we did it, and I’m so happy.”
Werner had been a key performer in the track titles.
She finished second in the 3,000-meter run in the NCAA indoor championships in March in Birmingham, Alabama. She also was the anchor leg for the distance medley relay team that finished fifth.
At the NCAA outdoor meet in Austin, Texas, in June, she finished second in the 5,000 meters.
While the track program has about 60 athletes with specialties such as pole vaulting and discus in addition to sprinting and distance running, the cross country program is a smaller group of runners who all cover the same 6-kilometer distance at the same time.
“It’s definitely a lot more intimate to know that we’re all out there doing the exact same thing,” Werner said. “I think it makes it a little more closely connected.
“This is incredible. I don’t even know ... I’m speechless about it. We’ve been working so hard for this, just to know that we actually did it is just something so much better.”
See complete story and more photos in the November 27 edition of the Herald.