Women's Track Earning Respect for OSU

There has been one sports story in the state of Oklahoma that many people have not heard much of. Oklahoma State's women's cross country and track program has quietly enjoyed one of the best years in school history.

The year started with a bang when the cross country team won the Tulsa Hurricane cross country festival in August of 2001.

"Our goal going into the season was to finish in the top half of the Big 12 and qualify the team for the national meet," assistant coach Peppie Whitaker said. "We had some big guns running for us and knew those were reasonable goals."

The Cowgirls finished first or second in every meet they competed in except for nationals. The three second-place finishes were all to teams nationally ranked in the Top 10. Siri Alfheim, one of the aforementioned big guns, finished in the top five in eight of the nine races she competed in.

Alfheim was runner-up in the Big 12, which led to her being named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, and also gave the Cowgirls runner-up team honors. She then went on to become the first district champion in school history as the Cowgirls won their first regional team title.

Marie Nilsson was also tabbed as All-Big 12 by finishing eighth in the conference and Valentina Medina finished 13th.

The Cowgirls had accomplished their preseason goals and advanced to the national meet held in Columbia, S.C., on the campus of Furman University. However, the flu lowered the expectations of the Cowgirls going into the meet.

An 18th-place finish did not seem that bad once the race was completed, knowing they could have finished much higher if they were completely healthy.

"I am ecstatic," head coach Catrina Acosta said after the race. "We ran our absolute worst race of the season."

Paula Gowing had to miss the first few months of track season because she suffered from mononucleosis during that national race. Alfheim fell all the way to 93rd overall after running a brilliant race at the regional meet and the Big 12 meet.

"It was by far the most disappointing race of my career," Alfheim said afterwards. "We expected some of this success to carry over into track season, and some of it did," Whitaker said.

The Cowgirls got surprising performances from their horizontal jumpers and Alfheim made sure the nation knew who she was.

An injury plague affected the Cowgirls for much of the track season. Stephani Duff had a nagging hamstring problem, Jamie Lucero had foot surgery, and Gowing recovered from mono only to compete at the end of the season with a sprained ankle. Alexandra Lindquist got a late start due to a stress fracture and Marie Nilsson was held out all season.

The Cowgirls went into the Big 12 Indoor Track and Field Championships knowing it would be difficult without a couple of their top performers.

Freshman jumper Maria Berggren scored points in the triple jump by finishing fourth and Medina broke an old meet record in the mile, but finished third.

Alfheim was no surprise, finishing second in the 5,000-meter run and third in the 3K.

The Cowgirls finished 11th in the Big 12, which was surprisingly well having Duff, Nilsson and Gowing unable to compete.

Medina and Alfheim were the lone Cowgirls to qualify for the national meet. Medina failed to qualify for the finals despite running a mile in four minutes, 48 seconds.

Alfheim more than made up for it by claiming the national championship in the 5K. Her time of 16:12.28 was a personal best and she became the school's first national champion since Jackie Goodman won the 10K 1989. Goodman was also the indoor champion in the 5K that year.

The Cowgirls beat most of the Big 12 teams at nationals and shared 22nd place in the country. After cross country and track the Cowgirls were 18th and 22nd nationally, respectively.

The outdoor season went pretty much the same way the indoor season did. It saw some people return from injury, only to aggravate their injuries at the Big 12 meet in Columbia, Mo.

Paula Gowing returned from mono and set the school record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase twice. She now owns the record at 10:58.13, which she set on a badly sprained ankle.

Melissa Ndibilo surprised many people except her coaches and Duff by finishing third in the long jump and qualifying for junior nationals with a jump of 19 feet, 06.75.

"This is where she should be," Duff said. "She is a 19 foot jumper and not 18."

The Cowgirls dealt with injuries the entire meet and struggled to a last-place finish on the last day of competition.

Alfheim once again showed what she was capable of by finishing third in the 5K and sixth in the 1,500-meter run. Her 5K time of 16:22.89 barely made the cut for nationals as she was the only Cowgirl who made it.

She ran in a very competitive field that had five runners with a time under 16 minutes.

Acosta said she performs better in bigger meets. Everybody believed her when they saw Alfheim shave 12 seconds off her personal best with a time of 16:00.47 and sprinted to a runner-up finish.

Alfheim's national runner-up finish carried the Cowgirls to a tie for 29th place nationally and much more respect.

They had now finished in the Top 30 in all three sports, which had only been done one other time. During the 1988-89 season, the Cowgirls finished 11th in cross country, tied for 13th in indoor track and 14th in outdoor track.

It was definitely a year those young women will remember what they accomplished and be proud of it.



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