Todd Harbour is a man who favors clean living, a guy not prone to profanity. But there remains one dirty word he just can’t resist uttering lately.
OK, so the word wouldn’t likely have Mom reaching for the Irish Spring. But in Harbour’s world, it’s a dangerous one to speak.
Nevertheless, the Baylor cross country coach envisions almost limitless potential out of his women’s team entering the 2016 season, which kicks off with Thursday’s Bear Twilight Invitational. Last year’s team combated little margin for error, given an overall lack of depth. A year later, that isn’t the case, Harbour said.
“It could be as good a team as I’ve had since I’ve been here, which I’m excited about,” he said. “We need to get back to nationals, and I think this is a team that if we stay healthy, it will be one that could maybe do something at nationals. Not just be happy to get there.”
In 2014, the Baylor women charged to the 15th NCAA meet appearance in school history, breaking a five-year drought for the program. But last year’s squad dropped just out of the hunt, finishing fourth at the NCAA South Central Regional Championships, two spots away from an automatic berth.
What emboldens Harbour’s confidence in an NCAA return is an influx of adroit newcomers to link with six battle-tested seniors.
One of those veterans is Maggie Montoya, who ran to a runner-up finish at last year’s regional meet to qualify individually for nationals. Perhaps appropriate for a long-distance runner, Montoya’s career has been marked by perseverance. She has endured exercise-induced asthma and some issues with her vocal chords that constricts her breathing while competing.
“So she’s been going through some exercises for that, and it seems to really be helping her,” Harbour said. “She’s in great shape, but it’s just getting to those races.”
Peyton Thomas closed the 2015 season with a burst, finishing seventh at the regional meet with a season-best 6,000-meter time of 20:10.5. So Baylor has a pair of reigning all-region runners at the head of the pack, but Harbour thinks he has some newbies who could creep into that mix.
Sophomore Lindsey Bradley transferred to Baylor from Washington, where she posted three top-seven finishes in her one season with the Huskies. Harbour also likes what he has seen from Anna West. The sister of Jordan West from the BU men’s team, Anna West produced four state titles in her home state of Missouri and placed 13th at the Nike Cross Country Nationals to earn All-America honors.
“Anna is going to be a big difference-maker for us this year,” Harbour said. “She’s a cross country runner. She can run. Then you have Lindsey Bradley, who transferred from Washington. Lindsey was one of their top runners last year before she developed a stress injury. They redshirted her indoor and outdoor.
“She transferred, and she was our No. 1 girl we wanted two years ago. Had I gotten her down here last year we probably would have been back to nationals last year. She’s here, she’s happy and she’s ready to go. Those two there will be not far behind Maggie and Peyton.”
A number of other runners could push into the top five, depending on the meet. Seniors Madie Zimmerman and Alex Davis provide ample experience, while freshman Gabby Satterlee is a 4:49 miler who finished first and third, respectively, in California’s state cross country meet her final two years of high school.
“The freshmen bring a lot of energy and then our underclassmen bring a lot of wisdom. It’s good,” Thomas said. “We’ve all gotten along very well so far.”
Holding their aces
Baylor’s men haven’t reached the NCAA meet since 1994. Yet that remains the dream destination at the end of the trail. Last year, the Bears finished sixth at the regional meet, four spots off the pace for an automatic national berth.
The idea is to pick up steam as the season progresses, Baylor coach Jon Capron said.
“I told them I wanted to save their ace, don’t play that out,” Capron said. “So this (opening) meet is kind of a little bit of the same. I want to see some of their cards, but I don’t want to see their high cards yet. That’s later in the season.”
With that in mind, Capron won’t send some of his top returning runners to the line for Thursday’s meet, including seniors Jordan West and Matt League. The coach will also take a wait-and-see approach with some of the freshmen, as several will compete unattached before the decision is made whether to redshirt them or not.
League finished 37th overall at the 2015 regional meet, and junior Eric Anderson followed shortly behind in 40th. Anderson said that he and his teammates have logged a bevy of miles on their personal odometers over the summer, and are eager to surprise the competition.
“I think we’re going to do pretty well this season,” Anderson said. “Our goal this season before we got started was to get fourth at conference and be in the running to make nationals. And we need to be in the top two in order to do so, So, we’re probably going to have to beat a team like Texas or Arkansas, who are very, very good.”
Arkansas figures to be a pest on the women’s side as well, as the Razorbacks boast a rich cross country tradition. That said, back when Baylor had the likes of Erin Bedell and Nichole Jones setting the pace, the Bears regularly ran with the Hogs and sometimes defeated them.
With gifted runners scattered all over the roster, Harbour believes his team owns the potential — there’s that word again — to return to those days.
“So when you look at the four on paper, you’re going the teams we had in the past where we could put five girls in the top 15 or 16 at regionals, that’s where I see this team being. That good,” Harbour said. “Now you’re not just hoping to get there, but you’re challenging for a regional championship, which we did a few years with Arkansas. I think the potential is there. That’s a scary word, but I think they definitely have that.”