Cross country team looks for breakout season in 2014

S-Rebekah Winterton Colby Patterson
Rebekah Winterton competes in the NCAA Regional Championships last season. Photo courtesy of U Athletics

Rebekah Winterton competes in the NCAA Regional Championships last season. Photo courtesy of U Athletics

For the cross-country team, this season is just one more step on their journey to shake up the Pac-12 conference.

The Utes will have a major season in 2014 if all members of the team can step up and have a complete season — not just a good start, or rather, a good finish. Head coach Kyle Kepler was pleased at how his team performed last season but wishes they could have run a little better at the conference championships.

“We are still kind of like some other sports, where we are getting better up front, but we need to improve as a whole,” he said.

Utah will be lead by redshirt senior Rebekah Winterton and senior Susannah Hurst. Winterton is coming off a very successful season, as she placed 89th at the NCAA cross-country championships last November.

“My goal is to be All-American,” she said. “There are some things that ride on it. I’m starting my masters, so school will be different, and I’m hoping to keep things pretty consistent.”

All-American status requires a top 40 finish at the cross-country championships. Winterton also wants to see her teammates qualify for the championships  so the team can go together.

Winterton is working on building her miles during the summer. She said she wants to avoid injury by working for distance and building her body so it can manage the strain that will be placed on it in 2014.

Hurst, unlike Winterton, has been lucky in avoiding injuries that would take her out for a large sum of time. She has raced four seasons straight.

The Utes cannot solely depend on the upperclassmen to carry them through the season. The incoming freshmen must also play their part in preparing the team for a successful year.

Kepler expects the newcomers to make an impact almost immediately and set the pace for the rest of the season. Utah will begin its season Aug. 29 at the UNR Twilight meet, and Kepler will start critiquing his team there.

“The first couple of meets, we have to think about it like basketball, so you can try a few new things,” he said. “Our top four kids probably won’t even run.”

He said any runners who will not be participating wouldn’t necessarily compete because their spots on the team are already solidified.

Kepler also said there is no reason to burn his experienced runners out early in the season. He wants the freshmen and other underclassmen battling for spots on the team to get more experience early on.

“The older kids don’t need to run as often,” he said. “We try not to push them over that threshold.”

Kepler is pushing for his runners to build strength and avoid injuries during the summer. While he has very limited contact with his athletes, he wants them to build a strong base during the offseason.

After finishing in the top eight last season in the Pac-12 conference and placing eighth in the NCAA Mountain Region, the team is poised to make huge strides this upcoming season. They are shooting for a finish in the top half of the Pac-12 and to qualify for regionals.

i.smith@chronicle.utah.edu