By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The history of the Kentucky women’s cross country program is well documented. After all, the 1988 Wildcats, under the direction of former legendary head coach Don Weber, are the only women’s team in the history of the Southeastern Conference to claim an NCAA Cross Country Championship.
Still, the Wildcats hadn’t advanced to the NCAA Championships as a team since 2008 and were no longer part of the national conversation when it came to winning titles. Hakon DeVries joined Kentucky in advance of the 2012 season as a part of first-year head coach Edrick Floreal’s new staff, charged with the goal of returning the women’s distance program to prominence.
Competing in the championship portion of their schedule over the past month, the Wildcats have proven that they are back among the nation’s elite.
Junior Cally Macumber and senior Chelsea Oswald led the charge for Kentucky, finishing 1-3 at the 2012 SEC Championships and then both earning All-America honors at the NCAA Championships this past Saturday at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.
“We definitely wanted to come here and really put the cross country team back on the map really loud and clear,” DeVries said Saturday. “I think we did a pretty good job of that with Cally and Chelsea.”
Valerie McGovern is a name that Macumber has become quite familiar with over the past year.
McGovern was a standout for the Wildcats in the late 1980s, running on the school’s NCAA Championship team, winning the program’s only SEC individual title and finishing as the national runner-up in 1989.
Macumber has come close to matching many of McGovern’s accomplishments over the past year, winning the SEC title in October before also claiming the NCAA Southeast Regional. Last Saturday, Macumber logged a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, crossing the finish line in a 6K time of 19:42.2.
“I felt really good,” Macumber said of her race. “I kind of lost the front pack for a little bit and was trying to catch them. I really had no idea what to expect, I was just going to go out and try to run my best, and I think I did that.”
Macumber finished the year with top-10 individual performances in each of the meets in which she competed. During the regular season, she charted the SEC’s top times at both 5,000 and 6,000 meters. She credits much of her development to DeVries’ training plan and having Oswald as a training partner.
“Our coach has had us do a ton of new things,” Macumber said. “We’ve been doing more mileage – doubles, long runs – and Chelsea has been helping me and pushing me every day.”
Speaking of Oswald, the senior, competing in her final race last Saturday, placed 37th in a time of 20:13.0 to earn All-America honors. While she felt as if the NCAA Championships could have gone better, Oswald was pleased with her performance in her first-ever national meet.
“I felt like I could have done better, but it was my last race, so I’m happy,” Oswald said. “My plan was to get out fast and get with the front and not get boxed in. I wanted to see how it would go from there. It was my first national meet, so I didn’t really know what to expect.”
Both runners executed DeVries’ plan to perfection on Saturday.
“It was a pretty simple plan,” he said. “They just had to get themselves out of traffic up in the front, let the race unfold, wait and close.”
The first-year coach was quick to note that the dynamic of the squad’s top-two runners couldn’t be discounted.
“To have both of them being able to train together – neither one of them could have been as good without the other,” DeVries said. “It was definitely great to walk into here and have both of them.”
The Wildcats’ only limitation during the 2012 season was a lack of depth, something that DeVries will, through relentless recruiting, have corrected in the coming year. Still, he felt that, had his entire team advanced to the national meet this season, Kentucky would have put on a solid performance.
“We were really close and we could have done a heck of a job here,” DeVries said. “It gives us something to strive for in the future – the girls know that they can be here now. It’s not a shock anymore.”
Fortunately for the Wildcats, their top runner returns next season with a year of eligibility remaining.
“Cally’s a junior athletically, so we’ve got her for another year,” DeVries said, smiling. “She’s going to come back here and be one of the favorites next year.”
One thing is for sure, Kentucky accomplished its season-long goal of putting the Wildcats back on the map.
“I think it sets a great tone just for the rest of this school year and also going forward with recruiting,” DeVries said. “Having a new staff in here, it was important to hit this first championship run and I think we did that. We definitely put the rest of the NCAA on notice that we’re up and coming.”