A three-peat is in sight as the No. 22 University of Utah cross country team travels to Bozeman, Montana for the Montana State Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 16 for its second meet of the year. The Utes have won the meet the past two years, with four runners finishing in the top 10 in 2016. Hannah McInturff, Grayson Murphy and Amanda Gehrich are the returners who claimed three of those four top spots from a season ago.
A familiar face will also be in the lineup this Saturday in redshirt senior Jessica Sams, who was one of the top finishers in 2015 at the same meet. Sams is looking forward to competing for Utah after a year off, and she wants to shake the rust off this weekend in her first race back with her team.
“It’s definitely kind of like testing the waters a little bit for not only where am I at with my training, but where is the whole team with their training,” Sams said. “It gives us an opportunity to see where our weaknesses are so we can work out the final kinks before we get to the races that we can earn Kolas points at, because those are the races that we have to be sharper for.”
Kolas points are what the team needs throughout the season to qualify for the NCAA championships. Eighteen teams automatically qualify after regionals (top two finishers from each regional), and the next 13-at large are determined by how many points teams rack up throughout its season.
This invitational gives Utah the opportunity to continue its training and stay the course as it moves into more intense meets in the coming weeks that will count for more points.
“Certainly you always want to win and compete well and be in a position to win,” said head coach Kyle Kepler. “But I think ultimately our goals are not about winning a regular season meet, it’s about getting back to the NCAA championship. Sams understands that goal as well, as she was a part of the team who headed to nationals back in 2015, the first of its back-to-back appearances.”
This smaller meet gives Utah more of an opportunity to work on its technique and focus in one what needs improvement.
“We can really work on our pack racing and trying to get our one through five and one through seven girls as tight of a spread as possible,” Sams said. “Where as some of those bigger races with more bodies, it’s a lot harder for us to stay in tight packs.”
This will be the first out-of-state road trip for the Utes as they will bus seven hours to Montana ahead of Saturday’s meet. After a year of rehabilitating and missing out on team travel, Sams is ready to be surrounded by her teammates while competing and soaking it all back in.
“Coming off a redshirt year, the thing I missed the most was being with my teammates and having those fun memories,” Sams said. “I’m really looking forward to all the crazy wild things that come with travel trips.”
Utah is scheduled to start its run Saturday at 9:00 a.m. MT.