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'Best two years of my life': Distance runner Paige Hofstad is thriving as a Tar Heel

Paige Hofstad runs at the ACC Championship in Cary on Friday, October 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications.
Buy Photos Paige Hofstad runs at the ACC Championship in Cary on Friday, October 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications.

Despite transferring from Georgetown late in her college career, fifth-year Paige Hofstad has blazed her own trail in helping lead a distance running renaissance for the North Carolina cross country and track programs.  

The New Braunfels, Texas, native admits that she wasn’t good at skill sports like volleyball and soccer growing up and only began running because of her older sister, Mia.

“My older sister tends to be better than me at everything,” Paige said. “My sister tried running. I didn’t think I’d be good at it, but I ended up beating (her).”

This inspired the younger Hofstad to keep running and improving, beginning her career at New Braunfels High School. It was there that she honed her craft before winning the Texas 5A State Championship in cross country as a sophomore. The next year, she finished second at the Nike Cross Country National Meet and fourth at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Meet. Then, she became a champion again in her senior year, winning the 3,200-meter crown in 2016.

“Around junior year I started running some times that I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can get a scholarship,'” Hofstad said. “I gradually got better each year. Definitely, my breakout year was junior year.”

Early career at Georgetown

The first three years of Hofstad’s college career were spent at Georgetown. She chose the university because she admired the coach, but he left his position only a week before she moved in.

Even as a first-year, Hofstad’s talent was clear. She finished 15th at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Region Championships in 2016 with a team-best 21:04.6 in the 6K. 

During her sophomore season, Hofstad opened the indoor campaign with a first-place finish and personal record in the 3,000-meter run at the Nittany Lion Challenge. She then recorded another personal best for the 5,000-meter run at the Iowa State Classic, where she finished 10th. The burgeoning collegiate star went on to place seventh in the 3,000-meter finals at the Big East Indoor Championship.

Her junior year went just as well, with Hofstad earning All-Region honors after a 16th place finish at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional as well as All-Big East honors with a third-place finish in the 6K. She earned another all-conference nod in the 3,000-meter run at the Big East Indoor Track and Field Championship and went on to place fourth with her personal best mile time at the Penn State National.

But when her junior season came to a close, Hofstad was ready for a fresh start. She decided to transfer due to difficulties adjusting to Washington, D.C., multiple injuries and difficult relationships with teammates and coaches. 

“I look back now and it was OK, but when I was there, I really struggled with the cultural transition,” Hofstad said.

She was raised in Texas, and moving to Washington was not what she hoped it would be. Hofstad joined the transfer portal and received bids from schools such as New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Villanova, N.C. State and UNC.

Ultimately, Hofstad decided to join an upstart UNC program under the guidance of new head coach Chris Miltenberg. 

“I had met a lot of the girls on the team and saw the difference in their team compared to mine,” Hofstad said. “I really liked the atmosphere here and the school.”

Time as a Tar Heel

Hofstad was not the only new addition for the Tar Heels heading into 2017. The coaching staff was also all new. Coincidentally, they all attended Georgetown as well, many years before she did. Assistant distance coach Dylan Sorensen admits that this coincidence was uncomfortable at first for Hofstad, who was looking for a fresh start. 

“She came in and was a bit concerned because she left Georgetown and wanted a new beginning,” Sorensen said. “I told her, ‘This is a blank slate for you, for us. We’re going to help you become one of the best athletes in the country.’”

But the move didn’t slow Hofstad down. 

In the 2019 cross country season, her first one as a Tar Heel, Hofstad was UNC’s top finisher in both postseason team competitions and in three of the four regular-season meets.

She earned All-ACC recognition for a fifth-place finish in the women’s 6K at the conference’s cross country championship, and All-Region accolades for a ninth-place finish and a personal record in the women’s 6K at the NCAA Southeast Regional. 

And after qualifying individually for the NCAA meet, she finished 48th in the 6K at the NCAA Cross Country Championship. 

Simply put, Hofstad stepped on campus and became a contributor to the Tar Heels immediately.

“Paige has done a really good job at being a leader,” said sophomore teammate Alex Morris, who became a Tar Heel the same year as Hofstad. “I’m really grateful she transferred here.”

Hofstad’s 48th-place finish at the 2019 NCAA Cross Country Championship put her just eight places and seven seconds shy of All-American Honors, despite being knocked down mid-race.

Throughout her time with the program, Hofstad persisted and continued to get better, allowing her to earn All-American honors for her 29th-place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championship this year during the Tar Heel women’s team's first NCAA appearance since 2014. 

She identifies this as her biggest accomplishment during her time at North Carolina so far, but says staying healthy, happy and consistent is just as important.

“I hope that she continues to embrace each day that we have in front of us to get one percent better for herself and her teammates,” Sorenson said. “If she does that, the sky’s the limit.”

Hofstad has grown to feel at home in Chapel Hill and plans to apply for graduate school at UNC to stay in the area after graduation. As for her time left as a Tar Heel runner, she hopes to get some more personal bests and continue to guide the ascending program.

While at first Hofstad was uncertain about how she would adjust to a new environment — even initially feeling apprehensive about the decision due to the staff’s close ties to her former school  — she now feels immense pride in being a Tar Heel. 

“It’s been the best two years of my life thus far,” Hofstad said. “I got the best second chance that anyone could be given.”

@lindseyashe_

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com




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