For five years, the women’s cross-country team has seen its conference results and overall output take a fall.
Prior to this season, UTA’s last piece of championship hardware came in 2014, when it won the Sun Belt Conference Cross Country Championship.
Since then, the team’s conference results have steadily declined. UTA placed third in 2015, fifth in 2016, eighth in 2017 and 10th last season.
Head coach John Sauerhage said this is the year things turn around, and this season’s squad is light-years ahead of where it was last year.
The team finished third of five teams at the Baylor Bear Twilight Invitational in Waco to kick off the 2019 season. On Sept. 7 at the Ken Garland Invitational in Denton, the women finished runner-up among six teams.
At the Gerald Richey Invitational on Sept. 14, the women were crowned winners among eight teams.
“They’re passing all the tests so far,” Sauerhage said. “But the tests are going to get a lot more difficult here in the next few weeks.”
For comparison, the team has improved its times since last year at its first three meets. Last year the women placed last among seven teams in Waco, scoring 201 points and averaging a time of 16:30 in the 4-kilometer race. This year in Waco, they scored 99 points and averaged a time of 14:56.
In last year’s Denton meet, the runners placed fourth among six, scoring 110 points and averaging 20:19 in the 5-kilometer race. This year in Denton, they scored 55 points and averaged a time of 19:47.
At UTA’s home meet last year, the team lost the dual meet to Baylor University, scoring 50 points and averaging 21:08 in the 5k race. This year, it took the crown with 38 points and an 18:52 average time.
Sauerhage said the current women’s team has laid the groundwork to compete for titles. A combination of bad recruiting, bad luck, poor performances, injuries and a lack of talent prevented UTA from being a top-three team in conference for the last several years, he said.
Junior Madeleine Rowe said in recent years women’s cross-country was stuck in a paradox of trying to grow as a program by recruiting good athletes, but they were unable to recruit well because they’re not an established team.
“It definitely is a catch-22 with the recruiting,” Rowe said. “You want to recruit to make your team better, but [prospects] don’t want to come on the team unless you have a good team.”
In recent years, the squad lacked spirit, team effort and cohesion, Rowe said. Sophomore Valeria Diaz said the small team didn’t have chemistry last year, but that’s changed this year.
The new recruits bring running pedigree to strengthen the team. Senior Shayla Huebner and junior Ieshia Dickerson transferred in with national-level experience. Huebner was an All-American for Northern Michigan University. Dickerson reached the NJCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championship twice in her two years for Cowley Community College.
Freshmen Sofia Santamaria and Bailey Villalon both competed in the UIL 6A State Championship for their respective high schools, while Haven Sizemore reached the UIL 6A Region 1 Championships.
Sauerhage said what could set this team back is that there’s no clear front-runner. Two runners, Huebner and Rowe, have paced UTA in meets this year. If someone can step into that role, Sauerhage said it’ll likely be Rowe, the 2019 outdoor track conference champion in the 1,500-meter run.
In the annual Sun Belt preseason coaches’ poll, the women were projected to finish eighth in conference among 12 universities. Although speculative, Sauerhage said there’s no way his team will finish as low as eighth at conference.
Sauerhage said Texas State University and Appalachian State University are the top teams for women’s cross-country in the Sun Belt. Every other team, he thinks his runners can compete with.
The past several years have been all about the men’s team, Sauerhage said, and he’s glad the women now have a chance to be competitive again.
“There’s no pressure on the team to win the conference meet,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to do well. I think it’s a good recipe for a successful outcome.”