2019 FloXC Show

Top-Ranked Arkansas Has A Chance At History

Top-Ranked Arkansas Has A Chance At History

Led by Taylor Werner and a formidable top five, can the Arkansas women win the program's first cross country title?

Aug 30, 2019 by Kevin Sully
Top-Ranked Arkansas Has A Chance At History

It was a season of contrast for the Arkansas women’s team containing both disappointment and elation, flops and clutch performances. In the fall, the women’s cross country squad fell apart in the cold of Madison. One of the pre-race favorites, the dropped all the way to 14th. The tight pack that carried them through the season came apart. Nobody finished in the top 40. 

In the winter, fortunes changed. The women’s track team won the indoor title, getting key performances from distance runners Taylor Werner, Lauren Gregory, Carina Viljoen, and Devin Clark. Outdoors, the Razorbacks won the outdoor team title, again with the help of the distance group. Werner a junior, scored 13 points, including a pivotal eight points in the penultimate event to tie the score and set up another national title. 

The win outdoors gives the top-ranked Razorbacks the opportunity to hold all three titles at the same time, if they can win the program’s first women’s cross country national championship in November.

Werner’s year epitomized 2018-19 for Arkansas. Last fall, she appeared to be fully recovered from a back injury that she suffered in a car accident in September of 2017. Werner was driving when she was T-boned by another car in an intersection. A scratch on her stomach was her only outward injury, but she had a fracture in the vertebrae. 

The recovery wasn’t linear. Arkansas head coach Lance Harter says they were naive about the impact of the car accident on her back. What appeared to just be tightness turned out to much more significant. The true extent of the injury wasn’t discovered until months later. Last fall, her results early in the season were good, but the impact of the injury loomed. 

“She was always nervous about, ‘Is this going to bother [my back]?’ And I think in almost every race and every workout we had an issue of one type or another,” Harter said. 

At nationals, she faltered, placing 81st. 

“It was all mental,” Werner said. “It was something that I’m in control of. I’m tired of doubting myself and putting people in front of me.”

Nobody else ran well that day for Arkansas, either. The team that upset Oregon at the Pre-Nationals meet a month prior didn’t materialize in Madison. Superstar freshman Katrina Robinson, who was second in that race at Pre-Nationals and had been among the nation’s best throughout the season, was Arkansas’ first runner in 41st place. Harter was concerned about the cold weather and tried their best to prepare the team, but the “best-laid plans probably didn’t come together.”

Disappointment turned into defiance. 

“We all just got together and said, 'All right, this isn’t going to happen again,'” Werner said. 

Indoors, Werner took off. At the national championship, she had the fastest 1600m split in the distance medley relay and placed second in the 3000m. That run, beating New Mexico’s Weini Kelati and finishing behind Jessica Hull of Oregon was the best of Werner’s career to that point. But the stakes made it more impressive. Arkansas needed Werner’s place (and teammate Lauren Gregory’s seventh-place finish) to secure the team victory. Harter told her as much before the race. 

“I’m not letting any name (or) jersey dictate how I’m going to race,” Werner said after the race. Aside from Werner and Gregory, Arkansas also got contributions from Clark in the distance medley relay and Viljoen in the mile. 

Outdoors they kept the momentum. Clark qualified for nationals in both the steeplechase and the 5000m, placing seventh in the steeplechase. Viljoen made the semifinals in the 1500m. The standout was Werner. Two days after she took fourth in the 10,000m, she was second in the 5000m. Again she delivered when Arkansas needed her. And again, she did it against stiff competition: Only Colorado’s Dani Jones was able to out-kick her in the final lap. 

At full fitness and teeming with confidence, Werner is one of the best individuals in the nation, capable of a top-three finish at the national meet this season. Combined with Robinson, Clark, Viljoen, and Gregory and the Razorbacks have the best projected first five in the nation.

The biggest question surrounds Robinson. After the auspicious start to her collegiate career, she picked up a shin injury and redshirted indoor and outdoor. 

Harter says they are bringing her back slowly and will redshirt her if she’s not in shape to be an All-American. Aerobically she’s still in great shape, the byproduct of a cross-training routine that includes the elliptical, biking and water running. Harter said she’s “a crazy woman in the pool,” but the test will be when she begins running at full speed again. 

If she does have to redshirt, then there will be demand for someone else to fill that void. Support could come from Katie Izzo, a Cal Poly transfer who has one year of cross country eligibility remaining. She was 82nd (one spot behind Werner) at last year’s cross country championships. 

Senior Maddy Reed brings plenty of experience and was Arkansas’ fifth woman last year in Madison. 

A title run for the Razorbacks requires not just a continuation of what they did on the track but a reversal of past performances in cross country. As storied as the men’s and women’s track programs have been, they’ve never won a women’s cross country title. They haven’t made the podium since 1999. The past three seasons, they’ve finished outside the top 10. To make the leap in 2019, they will need to adopt Werner’s mentality from last March. 

“This is all on us,” Werner said. “There’s nobody that is doing anything differently. This is all a mental game and if we want to be there we gotta be there for each other.”