In what University of Utah cross country head coach Kyle Kepler called arguably the team’s best race of its season, it placed fifth at the NCAA Mountain Regional on Friday after heading into the race ranked sixth in their region. However, Utah failed to qualify as a team for what would have been its third straight season participating in the NCAA Championships.
Utah finished with 149 points behind No. 1 Colorado who finished in first place, followed by No. 2 New Mexico, No. 18 BYU and No. 15 Utah State.
“I thought we did everything we needed to do, and as it turned out we were the first team out if they take 32 [teams] instead of 31, we’re in the meet,” Kepler said. “There were a few upsets in some other regions that stole some of those at large bids, but ultimately we didn’t do enough during the regular season to ensure a spot.”
The day after Utah competed in regionals, the team NCAA selections were announced. After not seeing their name on the list of teams to qualify for the NCAA Championships, the Utes were disappointed. Although, senior Jessica Sams is thankful for the experiences she has had on the team even if it didn’t end how she had hoped.
“Yes we’re disappointed, but it’s also a good time to reflect and we’ve come a long way,” Sams said. “There’s a lot of progress that this program is going to continue to make because of what we’ve done in these five years so we are trying to find the joy in that as well.”
Sams is pleased with the progress the team has made since her freshman season when Utah finished in eighth place at the Pac-12 Championships. She said the thought of the Utes getting into nationals when she first came to Utah wasn’t even on the table.
It has been a slow and steady uphill battle for the Utes as they have continued to make strides every year to propel their program further. In both the 2015 and 2016 seasons they made appearances in the NCAA Championships, and they spent part of their 2017 season ranked in the top 30.
It’s a slight step backward for the program to miss the championship meet this season, but Kepler said they’ve grown the right way, and it’s the seniors that have been instrumental in helping push Utah in a successful direction.
“All the seniors embody what we hoped it was going to be when I took the job 13 years ago, it took a decade to get there, but we did it right,” Kepler said. “We built it the right way and hopefully now we’re in a position where we’re in the mix every year.”
When asked about his senior class, Kepler struggled to find words to fully describe what they have meant to the program.
“We’ve got seniors on this team that were part of the first ever team in Utah’s entire history to go to the NCAA championships in cross country as a team,” Kepler said. “Those guys worked their tails off, they were willing to learn and to grow with the program and believe and trust what we asked them to do, and you can’t ask more than that.”
While the team’s season is over, senior Grayson Murphy’s isn’t done quite yet. Murphy finished second overall at regionals where she earned all-region honors, and she automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships that will take place on Saturday, Nov. 18 in Louisville, Kentucky.