The day after avoiding an upset to win the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference, the Cornerstone Women's Cross Country team found themselves ranked 7th in the the final NAIA ratings. Qualifying weekend saw two top ten teams upset in their conference meets, and bumping the Golden Eagles to seventh.
On the surface, it looked like just another example of how everything has gone right for the CU women this season, but there is more to the story.
Over the summer, coach Rod Wortley called Jill Louisignau to discuss her new role as co-captain. Part of the conversation dealt with the news that last year's number three runner was not returning to the team. "As soon as I hung up I prayed and asked God to help me lead because I didn't know how to do it," said the junior from Beulah, MI. "I wanted to lead and I knew that had to start with me. I promised myself that the mind games that would get to me in races the past two years wouldn't happen so I could stay focused."
That resolved was tested early as sophomore, Julie Oosterhouse lost three crucial weeks of training recovering from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in August. "I didn't expect a lot of myself this season," Oosterhouse said. "That helped me keep my nerves down and not question myself as much. The accident helped me see life is more important than these races."
Julie also noted the role Louisignau assumed, "She definitely has worked hard to get to know us and be a team player. She was doing her part the whole season when I wasn't there. She brought me along without any resistance. Her attitude has been phenomenal when things haven't gone her way. She's so strong and It's great to have someone like that to look up to."
Senior co-captain, Julia Contreras also adjusted to a new role. Her job was to keep the 4-7 group as close together as possible in races and get the fifth runner to the finish line with her. "I never expected to be in that spot. Coming into this year, I'd never run close to the times I'd need to in a cross country race. My best was only 19:45," Contreras said. "Coach and I talked over the summer about how this wasn't going to be an incremental thing, I just had to get past it. At the Knight Invitational in September, I went out hard and was slowing down in the second mile and Julie caught me and said, ‘you have to go.' Her scars from the accident were still healing and she still had some black swelling under her eyes, and she's pulling me along, I had to stay with her. I ran 19:06 that day. I never expected to get any faster. Before the Michigan Intercollegiate meet, Coach asked me how I was doing before the race. I said I didn't think I had it that day. I didn't feel good and had a lot on my mind. Then I ran 18:41. Coach Koutz puts a quote from Boo Shexnayder on his e-mails that says, ‘because somebody did it for you.' My team was putting all they had into this, so I needed to do the same. Three of us wound up always working together and helping each other in races. It was always a group effort. "
That group effort resulted in CU's 3-5 runners finishing no more than two seconds apart in the the two most important meets of the season.
With Louisignau and Oosterhouse racing well up front, that consistency at the 3-5 spots resulted in the Golden Eagles improving each race in the meet results and the national rankings. "Usually you'll have a bad race somewhere and this year we didn't," said Contreras. "It was surprising to be so consistent. Every time we went to the line I could trust everybody to do what they should and if not, someone would step up." Louisignau agreed, "Every race becamse exactly what we needed. It was just a blessing."
As much as the season went as planned, the seventh place ranking was still a surprise. "I had my mind wrapped around ninth," said Contreras. "It took some time because I didn't expect to jump that far when we went from fourteenth to ninth." "It's mind boggling," said Louisignau, "I didn't expect to move up after the WHAC meet because the top nine were so solid all year. We've tried to be humble all season and God has blessed us. We're not looking at ourselves as underdogs, though. It would be safer to go in 9th, but that's ok." Contreras summed it up well, "We're defending what we've done. So the plan is to into the race, act like the seventh ranked team and finish the work."