Whitman Women Ready to Reach for Cross Country Nationals
Sara McCune (left) and Yasmeen Colis (right)
By Andy Jobanek, Sports Information Intern
WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Suddenly it happened. The epiphany came three years ago, fast on the heels of a cross country race, one in which three sophomores sparked the Whitman College women’s team to a first-place showing.
“It was the first time we really realized, ‘Oh wait. We could potentially be good.’”
So says senior captain Sara McCune, looking back at the 2007 Lewis & Clark Invitational, when she and teammates Michela Corcorran and Emily Rodriguez led Whitman to victory, signaling a bright future ahead.
McCune, Corcorran and Rodriguez, along with classmates Yasmeen Colis and Heather O’Moore, have delivered on that flash of talent.
This fall alone, the five senior women have led Whitman to a preseason No. 1 ranking in the NCAA Division III regional poll, won another Lewis & Clark Invitational and put Whitman on the cusp of winning its first Northwest Conference title in ten years.
They get that chance this Saturday, Oct. 31, when the conference championships take place at McIver Park near Estacada, Ore. For those not in the know, the McIver course is where Whitman has won two of the last three Lewis & Clark invitationals.
Another win on that course would cap a remarkable turnaround for women’s cross country. One season before this year’s senior class arrived on campus, the Whitman women finished a distant seventh place (for a second straight year) at the NWC championships and then an inconsequential 12th at the regional meet.
Two years before their arrival, Whitman was unable to field a full women's team (minimum of five runners) at the regional meet.
Since then, the Whitman women have improved each year, placing sixth in 2006, fourth in 2007 and second in 2008.
But that’s not what coach Malcolm Dunn will remember most about this class of senior women. He’ll remember them as runners who changed the way Whitman competes in cross country – on the men’s side as well as on the women’s side.
“They’ve set a standard of teamwork that has filtered down through the different classes,” Dunn says. “You can point to numbers and say this is the best the Whitman cross country team has been in 10 years, but more than that, their example is going to trickle down and continue. They’ve really started something special with where the program is headed.”
The bond that developed between the five seniors came as a surprise, at least initially, to all of the runners. McCune says she didn’t know the other four were coming and wondered if she would have any accomplished runners as teammates.
“None of us really expected the other ones to be here,” McCune says. “Looking at the team’s times from the year before, compared to my times, I wasn’t sure I’d have people to run with, but I think all of us were thinking that same thing. So when we all came in and did the first few workouts, we all thought, ‘wow, hey, how did this happen?’”
art from racing, the five seniors have grown close on a personal level. For Corcorran, that is most important point.
The team's "importance to me is not so much the running aspect," Corcorran says. "It’s more the friends I’ve made on the team and just being with all the people on the team. I just love all of them. It’s a really cool community.”
That unity has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Colis notes the team’s use of pink ribbons in their hair to symbolize unity during a race.
“The idea is to keep a pink ribbon in sight so you know that you’re running with (teammates),” Colis says.
The five seniors have lived together during fall semester each of the last year two years, something all the runners say they enjoy.
“It’s been a really good support group because we’re all going through the same things — going to school and running — and I think that carries over to training and racing,” O’Moore says.
“It also lets us be more supportive (of one another) in races because we know what’s going on in each other’s lives besides just running and what other problems might be contributing to performance,” O’Moore says.
Rodriguez, a senior captain, says that living with her teammates helps her maintain focus on her sport.
“I have a friend who cycles and she lives with all non-cyclists,” Rodriguez says. “That’s really hard for her because her roommates are going out and its really hard for her to set those limits and boundaries. When you’re living with people with the same mindset as you, then it’s a whole lot easier.”
Not surprisingly, Dunn has encouraged the group’s closeness from the beginning.
“To have that level and depth of connection with each other is really phenomenal," he says. "Having had that a bit myself when I was in college, I know that these are the people they’re going to be friends with for the rest of their lives. In addition to just getting along so well and sharing so much together, having shared the same goals running-wise has made them even stronger.”
Dunn says the runners continued to feel connected while all five studied abroad during last spring semester.
“I know from talking with Sara, that when she was in Iceland last semester she found the training difficult when there were only four or five hours of daylight, maybe less, every day. But she knew that her teammates around the world were getting up and doing the same thing and that was a big inspiration for her.”
Now back from studying abroad, the five seniors have reassembled for one more shot at their ultimate goal -- a team trip to nationals. The Whitman women have finished fourth in each of the last two years, two spots out of the two automatic berths. They also were bypassed when at-large bids were passed out.
To qualify this year, the team needs to finish in the top two at the regional meet on Saturday, Nov. 14. If they finish third, an at-large berth at nationals is likely due to the strength of the region. Finish fourth and the team might be left behind again.
“We’ve been working toward this since our sophomore year, and both sophomore and junior year we were right on the edge,” Corcorran says. “It’d just be really great for us in our senior year to have that goal be achieved. I’m sure it’d be really emotional. It’d be so exciting. It’d be great for all us, since we’ve worked together for so long.”
When asked about nationals, Colis cringes, saying she’d prefer not to use the word until they qualify. Still, Colis and her teammates agree that near misses the last two years have given them a maturity they didn’t have before.
Something that Michela said to me at one point during a bus ride is that now she knows what she has to do when it comes time to race,” Colis says.
“By now we all know what it's going to take. We’ve all worked so hard individually while we were apart and we’ve all worked so hard together. We know that just going out and doing it will make it happen.”
That maturity also means each runner knows that nationals won’t make or break their careers.
“It would be a really nice conclusion to four years of working toward it, but I don’t think it’s the end-all be-all,” O’Moore says. “There’s so many other factors. I think our ultimate goal would be to end with our best race.”
And whether that final race comes at regionals or nationals, each racer will take their accomplishments and lessons learned from each other to the next stage of their lives. Like spring semester last year, those futures might take them to different corners of the world.
Rodriguez, an environmental studies-sociology combined major, has applied for a fellowship to study environmental education in Sweden next year.
McCune, an environmental studies-geology major, has several options on her radar. She thinks about teaching English in Costa Rica or possibly applying to an agro-ecology or proto-cultural program in Latin America. There’s also a chance she may not leave the sport of cross country just yet and become an assistant coach for her high school team.
Corcorran, a religion major and race and ethnic studies minor, also is mulling various options. She may teach English abroad, but her country of choice would be Spain. Corcorran eventually wants to go to gradudate school and could end up teaching high school.
Colis, a biology major and chemistry minor, plans to look into alternative medicine programs after graduation with special focus on women’s health or children’s health. She might also land in the field of exercise science.
O’Moore, a biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology major, is looking into different medical school programs. She’s interested in naturopathic medicine or osteopathic medicine as possible fields of study.
Of course, there is no telling where the five seniors might be in a year or two, or what they might be doing.
There is no question, though, where all five want to be on Nov. 21, the first Saturday of Whitman’s Thanksgiving break.
That would be Highland Hills, Ohio, running as a team, one final time, at the NCAA Division III national championships.