Nothing against her coach, but Rachel Johnson had no intention of hanging out with Todd Harbour in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Not by herself, anyway. The Baylor senior standout made that journey last year to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, and enjoyed her one-on-one time with her coach. But she desperately wanted her team to accompany her this year, and ultimately she got her wish.
“It’s going to be so much more fun, just having the team there. It’s great to spend time with Coach and stuff, but a lot of the girls on the team are some of my best friends,” Johnson said. “It’s great to have them there and have their support, and me being able to support them. To be racing for not only myself, but knowing that I’ve also got a team racing with me.”
The 28th-ranked Baylor women clinched their first NCAA berth since 2009 with a second-place regional finish last weekend in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Johnson’s status as a gold-rushing front-runner has been a given; the senior has finished in the top three individually of all four of her races this year. But Baylor’s next four runners have fueled the team’s overall surge by narrowing the gap between one another.
Cross country runners talk often of seeking a pack mentality. Baylor’s runners have managed to cling to one another like Cheeto dust in recent meets, creating an even closer bond among an already tightly wound group.
“I don’t know if anyone else saw it, but we heard the Arkansas girls cheering to each other (at regionals),” sophomore Maggie Montoya said. “So we were like, ‘OK.’ I looked around and there were Rachel, Mariah (Kelly), Alex (Davis) and I all together and I was like, ‘Let’s go, Bears!’ Rachel reached back and gave me a high-five and we took it from there. We stayed close together for the majority of the race.”
Baylor’s mission at regionals was to clinch one of the top two automatic-qualifying spots without sapping too much energy for the NCAA meet. The Bears managed to accomplish that feat, and as it turned out the automatic berth proved absolutely necessary. Due to some upsets of highly-ranked teams in other regionals, Baylor wouldn’t have nabbed an at-large berth to the 31-team national meet.
“So that was a really good thing that the ladies ran well,” Harbour said. “But I think it was also a good thing that they didn’t know that ahead of time. They ran a controlled race. It wasn’t an all-out, just go-for-it. I think they ran very smart and definitely put us a position to run well this week. That’s been our goal all season. Let’s get there and run well once we get there.”
Harbour shouldn’t have to dig deep into his bag of motivational ploys to inspire his runners. The rankings themselves have done that. Baylor has run hip-to-hip with some of the top 10 teams in the country, and the Bears’ top five runners have finished in the top seven teams of every race this season, including the competitive Pre-Nationals in Terre Haute Oct. 18. In spite of that fact and the team’s silver-medal regional standing, the team tumbled to No. 28 in the national poll from No. 21 the previous week, a ranking the runners already felt was too low.
“Yeah, we want to prove it. The rankings, we’re not comfortable with that,” Montoya said. “We want to go out there and prove that we’re better than that, not be ranked what we have been all year. We want to be respected.”
While Montoya, Kelly and the rest of Baylor’s runners will be on a buddy-system quest to stick together, like elementary school students on a field trip, they know Johnson may end up leaving the pack behind. The senior from Plano has set a hot pace ever since last track season, and could be among the title contenders if she puts it all together Saturday.
“On my run today I was thinking about how nothing is for sure, nothing externally is for sure,” said Johnson, who finished 107th in her debut national appearance last year. “It’s not for sure I could win nationals, but internally for me it’s for sure that I’m going to try my hardest and go out there and give it everything I have. I’m going to leave it all on the course.”