Utes Finish Sixth at Notre Dame, Focus on Improvement

In its first big meet of the season, the Utah cross country team finished sixth out of 23 teams in the Joe Piane Invitational, one of the most prestigious races in the nation, in South Bend, Ind.

“Overall, we were very pleased to finish sixth in that race,” said head coach Kyle Kepler. “We finished just five points behind New Mexico, and they are the defending national champions. There were some teams that were ranked ahead of us, who we beat. There were some teams that were receiving some votes, too, but they competed and finished ahead of us. It wasn’t a perfect race, but we are thrilled to have done so well against so many good teams.”

The No. 1 team in the nation, Providence, ended with the top score of 117 points. NC State finished in second place with a score of 149 points, followed by Eastern Michigan, New Mexico and Baylor to round out the top five.

Finishing first for the Utes was junior Grayson Murphy, who finished in 19th place overall with a time of 16:46.4. Senior Giselle Slotboom gave the Utes another top 25 finish, taking 21st place overall with a time of 16:47.1.

“It was my first time so I was excited to get out there and run this course.” Murphy said. “I feel like I stayed engaged and focused the whole race. I’m really proud of how our team did against the competition.”

Freshman Amanda Gehrich finished 34th overall, posting a time of 16:58.7. Freshman Poppy Tank and junior Hannah McInturff both had impressive performances as well, finishing at 48th and 49th place, respectively.

“I think our top five runners got out really fast. That is important, because this race at Notre Dame is really flat, and there aren’t any hills or anything you can use to catch up to the front of the pack.” Kepler said. “Very quick after the start of the race, the course narrows and becomes very tight, maybe only 10 to 12 feet apart, so you have to get out fast and I think we did that. We are in a very tough region and conference, so it’s those little things that we need to keep doing to get ahead.”

Looking forward, Kepler thinks the team can qualify for an automatic bid to the NCAA championships.

“With as well as we have been running lately, if we can continue to run well and stay healthy, I think we have a real shot at being an automatic qualifier for NCAA championships,” Kepler said. “We are in a very tough conference in the Pac-12, and I believe there are four of the top 10 teams in the nation in our conference. We have a long way to go and prepare before then, but I like where we are as a team, and I like that we are improving.”

The Utes also ran six other runners in the open race later Friday afternoon. Junior Shaylen Crook finished seventh overall, posting a time of 17:42.7. Junior Dakota Grassman and freshman Nicole Griffiths both placed in the top 20 as well, finishing with times of 18:09.7, and 18:17.9, respectively.

Up next for the Utes is the Wisconsin Invitational, in Madison, Wis. on Friday, Oct. 14, and it’s something that Kepler is looking forward to.

“Basically, the invite list went to those teams that competed at the national championships last year, so we’re very excited to be invited,” Kepler said. “There will be something like 20 of the top 30 teams in the nation competing there, so it’s another chance to compete with the best teams out there.”

j.walch@dailyutahchronicle.com