Women’s Cross Country Keeps on Striding

Head+Coach+Betsy+Emerson+speaks+to+Womens+Cross+Country+team+after+the+2013+MIAC+Championships+in+which+Mac+finished+fourth.+Photo+courtesy+of+Christopher+Mitchell.

Christopher Mitchell / Sport Sho

Head Coach Betsy Emerson speaks to Women’s Cross Country team after the 2013 MIAC Championships in which Mac finished fourth. Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.

Head Coach Betsy Emerson speaks to Women's Cross Country team after the 2013 MIAC Championships in which Mac finished fourth. Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.
Head Coach Betsy Emerson speaks to Women’s Cross Country team after the 2013 MIAC Championships in which Mac finished fourth. Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.

It is the peril of coaching at the college level: at the end of the year, your seniors leave. The leaders of your team, both on and off the field, go on to new things. At the end of each season, the stability of every college team is challenged. Younger players must step up and become leaders, and more is expected of everybody.

Responding to this shakeup takes a long time for many teams; some take entire seasons to bounce back from losing their seniors. So what do you get when a team manages to circumnavigate this adjustment period? What happens when the members of a team flow seamlessly into their new roles, and all fully expect to maintain their level of achievement from the season before, if not improve on it? You get a beloved coach with a vision and a truly special team dynamic. You get the Macalester Women’s Cross Country team.

The culture of every team is established by its coach, and fifth-year coach Betsy Emerson has worked since day one to set a clear standard for what her team is and what it is not. She is inspired by the chemistry between her runners and commented on the necessity of a good balance between fun and work. “It’s so important that we have an incredibly close-knit group, and we obviously have that, but it’s also a group that’s really working to get better as a program, and is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do that, and isn’t afraid to commit to being great,” she said.

Those sentiments were echoed by one of Coach Emerson’s captains, Sarah Jonathan ’16: “Our biggest hurdle in recent years has been getting over the idea that we can’t have both sides and that we can’t be both a really close team and a really competitive team, and now we are clearly where we need to be on that issue. We’ve always been a very close team, it was just a little different before.”

The culture change within the Women’s Cross Country program has extended beyond the team dynamic. From the very beginning, Coach Emerson drilled it into her runners that they are all part of a journey to create a program that one day can sustain itself as a MIAC and national power, and has stressed the importance of setting realistic but ambitious goals for incremental improvement.

Since her arrival, the program has also changed with regard to the expectations put on runners. “When I first started here, some people bought into the lifting program and some didn’t. Many weren’t used to having to lift as a team prior to my arrival, but that was one of the first things I immediately changed. Now we have such commitment amongst the women, it’s really inspiring to watch,” she said. Couple those positive changes with her fun-loving nature and innate ability to make you comfortable around her, and it’s easy to see why Coach Emerson has the complete devotion of the women on her team.

That level of commitment to Emerson and her vision has already yielded results. Last year the Scots placed fourth at the MIAC Conference Championships, their best finish since 1999, and had their first All-American since 1999 in then-first year Kimber Meyer ’17. Meyer also finished All-American for Indoor and Outdoor Track.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.

The sustainability of such a high level of achievement is the challenge this year, as the Scots have to replace 13 seniors from the class of 2014. Coach Emerson, however, is not worried. As she put it: “I don’t think at any point this summer did I think that we were really going to struggle to replace our seniors this year. I was more optimistic about our exciting incoming freshmen that are joining our strong sophomore class.”

These beliefs are proving well-founded after this weekend’s Roy Griak Invitational Meet, in which six of the top seven Scots were underclassmen, three of them first years. The Scots finished sixth overall, improving on a ninth place finish in 2013. Meyer finished third overall after missing the first two meets of the season, and was one of nine Scots to finish in the top 100.

According to their captains, this is just the beginning of what they think they can achieve this season. “I think we’re going to do really well. I really think it’s a realistic goal that we can do better than we did last year. At least that’s my goal for us,” said co-captain Caitlin Toner ’15. Clearly, this team has no intentions of making this a rebuilding year.

The Scots continue their season Oct. 11 at St. Cate’s, which the Scots consider a home meet. They’ll be running for the inspired coach that brought them all together, and for their shared vision of a program with great things ahead of it. Though, unsurprisingly, they’ll mostly be running for each other.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Mitchell.