(Grand Rapids, Mich.) For the past five seasons the NAIA Great Lakes Challenge has been a make-or-break race for the Cornerstone Women's Cross Country team. More often than not, the result has ended any hope of qualifying for the NAIA Championships. "We've had a crazy range of things go wrong here," said Coach Rod Wortley. Last season, the team's top runner wound up in the hospital the night before the race and didn't run. Three years ago, their #5 runner was knocked down and spiked in the first 100 meters, needing 14 stitches to close the gash. In 2008 CU's #1 runner dropped out after two miles.
The 2012 season has been different. "We have the same team, just a different attitude," said senior co-captain, Julia Contreras, who has been through her share of Great Lakes disasters. That difference has resulted in breaking the school record for team time on three occasions and the highest national rankings in program history. But it didn't start out that way.
On the way to a preseason camp in Northeastern Michigan the team was involved in a two-vehicle accident that sent three women to the hospital and jarred the rest, physically and emotionally.
"We got to mini-camp and we're missing a couple people who were back home pretty banged up," Contreras recalls. "The rest of us were bruised and sore and the freshmen probably had no idea what to think at that point. A hard week of training was out of the question, but we did spend a lot of time figuring out who we were and learning how much we matter to each other. If we could get through that, we knew there wasn't much that could keep us from accomplishing our goals."
So after being ranked 20th in the NAIA preseason poll, CU moved up every week – from 17th to 16th, 15th, 14th then a jump to 9th after taking fourth in the Michigan Intercollegiate Championships the first week in October. A second week at the #9 spot added more confidence, bringing them to the most important meet to date - the NAIA Great Lakes Challenge: Thirty-two teams, over 350 runners, the fast Riverside Park course here in their own back yard.
"Even with things going so well, we still had to show up and do the work," said junior, Jill Louisignau. "During our warm up we talked about not feeling like the underdog. We're not out to prove anything, we're defending what we've already done."
"We went into the meet focused on seeing how close we could get to Olivet Nazarene who came in ranked 4th in the NAIA," Wortley said. "But on paper we've been pretty much even with Aquinas since the middle of September and in a meet this size anything can happen." When the Golden Eagles first moved from 14th to 9th in the rankings, they traded spots with Aquinas. The Saints had moved back up to 12th, and couldn't be underestimated.
So with cool, damp, nearly ideal conditions the race got under way. The opening mile was fast, with CU's first four bunched in the top 30 between 5:46 and 5:50.
In the second mile, Louisignau and Julie Oosterhouse pulled ahead of Aquinas' pack, moving into the top 20. They remained together until the final 600 meters, when Oosterhouse unleashed a finishing drive that could only come from a two-time 800 meter All-American. The chip timing system with sensors at each mile revealed that Oosterhouse had the fastest last mile of anyone in the race. Her 5:47 closer brought her from fifteenth to fifth in 18:14. Louisignau held her spot in the top 20, placing 17th in 18:41.
Contreras picked up Audrey Tremaine near the halfway mark and told her to latch on. The freshman managed to stay within twenty meters up the long straightaway between 3 and 4 kilometers.
Ten seconds behind them, CallyAnne Wyma was picking off tired Saints and making a determined effort to join Julia and Audrey. She accomplished that mission shortly before the three mile mark. "Cally didn't have any kick left, she used it all bring Audrey back up to me," said Contreras. The trio threw what they had into the final 200 meters, arriving at the line together in 19:02 earning 27th, 28th and 30th places.
Standing along the course with 300 meters to go, Wortley watched his top five pass, "After CallyAnne went by, I thought, ‘OK, what do we need now?' It took a couple seconds to process, then I realized, it's over, we've got second."
Olivet Nazarene, IL took the team title easily with 41 points. Cornerstone finished a solid second with 105, running the second fastest team time in program history. Huntington led a tight 3-5 finish with 168 points just ahead of the University of St. Francis, IL at 173 and Aquinas' 181.
"The support we had today was amazing," said Contreras. "Everybody seemed to be here, our whole Cornerstone family. Last year's captain, Janelle Brown, even got up at 4 a.m. in China to skype us during our team meeting yesterday and wish us well. There are so many alumni who worked so hard to get us to this point. As a team and as a senior it is very encouraging to beat Aquinas. God has blessed us so much already, but we're not done yet."