For the first time in seven years, the North Carolina women's cross country team was selected to run at the NCAA Cross Country Championship meet as a team.
The women’s team was narrowly eligible to compete at the event in Stillwater, Oklahoma — home of Oklahoma State University — after the NCAA committee selected it as the final team.
For the men’s team, junior John Tatter qualified as an individual, the first men's runner to do so for the Tar Heels since 2015.
The women’s team consisted of seven runners and one alternate, including fifth-years Paige Hofstad and Mady Clahane; senior Emmeline Fisher; and first-years Sasha Neglia, Ava Dobson, Kelsey Harrington, Taryn Parks and Sarah Trainor.
The Tar Heel women finished 14th in the team score, their highest placement since 2010, while Tatter finished 194th overall in the men’s race, running a 32:43.9 in the 10k.
Neglia, who was named ACC Freshman of the Year in the fall, said she enjoyed the opportunity to compete in the championship meet, but kept in mind that she and her fellow runners were there to compete.
“It was a really good experience,” Neglia said. “It was just amazing being there as a team, and we definitely exceeded most people’s expectations, but we believed in ourselves and worked really hard as a team.”
Due to COVID-19, the cross country national championships were pushed from their usual fall date to March, coinciding with when most runners are preparing for outdoor track.
Hofstad, who transferred to North Carolina from Georgetown for her senior and fifth-year seasons, earned All-American honors, placing 29th for the highest finish by a Tar Heel woman since Annie LeHardy in 2013.
“That was our first race in a while, and we had also never run in the spring," Hofstad said. "It’s been a weird year — we’ve had to get tested before every race and there are many protocols that we have to follow, but overall, having it in the spring was the strangest thing. Despite that, we ended up doing really well.”
Assistant coach Dylan Sorensen, who is in his second year coaching at North Carolina, tried to use the obstacles created by COVID-19 as a motivation for improving the team and its morale.
“It’s been tumultuous, constantly changing, unpredictable and a microcosm for what people’s lives have been like over the past year," Sorensen said. "We knew that we could either become victims of that situation, or make the most of the situation that was ahead of us ... Wherever you were, whether it was a quarantine dorm or a competition, just try to get one percent better each day.”
In the championship meet, 31 women's teams were selected to compete. The Tar Heels were the 31st of those teams. Sorensen wasn't surprised — he knew his runners were competitive. Sure, they were excited to be there, but they were also on a mission.
“The most important part was that as soon as we learned we made it, we had a meeting,” Sorensen said. “We knew this was a huge step for our program, but we are not just going to be happy to be there. That’s not the way of the future, that’s not the way we talk at practice and that’s not the way we want to ever perceive any situation.”