No matter how the team finishes at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute on Monday, the Vanderbilt women's cross country team has had the kind of season teams dream of.
"Dream," said head coach Steve Keith. "I keep joking, wake me up on Thanksgiving and tell me it all happened. It's been a blast, from the very first opener when those three knuckleheads (Alexa Rogers, Louise Hannallah, and Jordan White) all ran together."
As a group, they've shattered their previous personal bests, and schools records along with it. They broke into the national rankings for the first time in school history, rocketing to the No. 3 spot, and then went on to earn the school's first SEC title in cross country. Now, they're on their way to their first ever appearance at Nationals.
They couldn't have done it without each other. All season, the emphasis within the group has been on each other, rather than on themselves. Senior Hannallah, who paced the Commodores at the South Regional, said that she gained her strength from and ran for her teammates.
"I wasn't running for myself," she said after the race.
It's something each of the women vehemently believes. Rogers, individually having her best season, is the first to say it's because of her team.
"This is the best feeling in the world," said Rogers. "We have worked hard every day: every practice, drill, ice bath, workout, circuit, etc. We saw our dream and used it to push us to work that much harder and believe that much more. This allowed us to develop an unbreakable bond with each other. We learned to race not for ourselves but for each other."
That mentality will come in handy as the long season wears on the runners, who have poured everything into each race as though it's their last.
"Everybody's got a little of this, a little of that, a little sick, a little breaking down," said Keith, whose focus this past week leading into the race weekend has been to get his team healthy. "It's basically `what can we do to feel the best'."
"When you really want something, it is not hard to refocus your mind," said Rogers. "Of course our bodies needed time to recover but with our mind in the right place we've been able to make every effort to recover our bodies, keep each other happy, and still put in the work needed to prepare us for the next race."
All that aside, this team wants to finish their season the way they started--beating all expectations, and running for each other.
The women's race starts at 11:58 a.m. CT on Monday in Terre Haute, Indiana, with 31 teams and a total of 255 individuals competing. Hannallah, Rogers, and White will be joined by teammates Kristen Smith, Liz Anderson, Grace Orders, and Amira Joseph on the 6K course.
Quicknote: Look for pink this weekend if you're at the race. The women's team will be wearing their pink singlets rather than their traditional black tops--a new tradition that shows the team's support for breast cancer awareness. They've worn the tops at two other major races this year--the Louisville Invitational and Wisconsin-Adidas Invitational, both in October.