Utah Cross Country Secures Spot in NCAA Championships


University of Utah junior Astrid Lindgren (27) during the Women’s 5K run at the Utah Open in an NCAA Cross Country Meet at Sunnyside Park in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday Oct. 25, 2019.(Photo by Curtis Lin | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Isaac Dunaway, Sports Writer


It was a cool 45-degree day in Albuquerque on Friday, where the University of Utah cross country team continued their strong 2022 season. The No. 9 ranked Utes took second place at the NCAA Mountain Regionals, locking up the program’s first ever automatic bid for next week’s NCAA Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

The Mountain Region is known as maybe the most competitive region in the country this year. Other ranked teams competing included No. 2 New Mexico, No. 4 Northern Arizona, No. 6 BYU, No. 8 Colorado, No. 20 Colorado State and No. 27 Utah Valley, among others. Despite the tough field, the Utes earned their highest regional finish in program history.

The Utes were without senior Ariel Keklak on Friday due to an illness. The team has dealt with a number of injuries and illnesses throughout this season.

“We executed our race plan… We just talked about running our race and scoring well,” said Utah head coach Kyle Kepler after the race. “We didn’t necessarily talk about winning or trying to get an auto qualifier. We just wanted to make sure we ran smart races and put ourselves in good positions to accumulate points. They ran very smart and got the job done.”

The Utes were led by Emily Venters once again at the Mountain Regionals, as she finished seventh overall with a time of 20:10.8. Simone Plourde also earned a top-ten finish with a time of 20:17.4. Plourde gained two spots in the final 1k for her tenth-place result. Both Venters and Plourde both earned first team All-Pac-12 selections this season.

Keelah Barger also finished her race off strong, picking up seven spots towards the end. Her time was 20:35.3, which put her 17th overall in the race. Plourde’s and Barger’s finishes were crucial for the Utes winning a tiebreaker with Northern Arizona to get the second-place finish and automatic NCAA Championships bid.

Morgan Jensen also picked up seven spots towards the end of the race, finishing 33rd with a time of 20:53.9. Not far behind her was Erin Vringer, finishing 36th with a time of 20:57.2.

Lauren Peterson and Karli Branch rounded out Coach Kepler’s lineup on Friday. Peterson finished with a time of 21:39.5, good for 68th overall. Branch was 76th overall with her time of 21:49.2.

Friday was a monumental day for Utah cross country. 2022 is the first time Utah has ever earned an automatic bid to the NCAA championships. It’s the fifth time Utah has made it, along with 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2021. All five of Utah’s NCAA championships appearances have come during Kyle Kepler’s time as head coach. The Utes also finished higher than three other top ten teams: Northern Arizona, BYU and Colorado.

“We’re going to get things cooled down and pack up and get back home and get ready to go next Saturday,” Kepler said.

The NCAA Championships will be next Saturday, Nov. 19, at the OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The race will start at 8:20 a.m. local time and will be televised on ESPNU.


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