The Valparaiso women’s cross country team made an immediate impact on the Horizon League in its first season running in the new league, as Laura Rolf captured the individual championship and the Crusaders ran to a fourth-place team finish at the league championships. Now, entering 2008, Rolf is back to close out her impressive career, but she has plenty of backup among her teammates, as she leads a contingent of nine Crusader runners returning for the 2008 campaign.
Rolf, who had already established herself as one of the top runners in Crusader cross country history after earning All-Region honors each of her first two seasons, surpassed even her own lofty standards last season, winning each of her first five races of the season en route to Horizon League Athlete of the Year accolades. She kicked off the season with her second straight victory at the Crusader Open, earning league Athlete of the Week honors after defeating the field by over a minute.
Rolf followed the next week by besting a field of 94 runners at the Boston College Open, setting a new personal best in the 5K while defeating runners from Syracuse, Providence, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest among the top-five finishers. She repeated as Horizon League Athlete of the Week after that performance. Two weeks later, Rolf dominated the Gold Race at the Notre Dame Invitational, winning by 46 seconds while setting a new school record of 17:04 at the 5K distance.
Rolf’s new record lasted just two weeks, as she lowered her program standard by another 24 seconds at the Evansville Invitational, breaking the tape for the fourth consecutive race, this time by nearly 50 seconds. She proceeded to capture the individual title at the Horizon League Championship in Valpo’s first season in the league for her fifth consecutive victory.
Rolf went on to earn All-Region honors for the third consecutive year, finishing sixth at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, her second straight top-ten finish at the regional level. She followed with her second consecutive top-50 placement at the NCAA Championships, crossing the line in 48th place, just 20 seconds outside the top-25.
While Rolf is the only senior on the 2008 women’s side, she is joined by a number of runners who gained a year of experience last year running for the Valpo squad. Three Crusaders are back for their junior seasons, while six runners with sophomore eligibility return and one freshman joins the squad for the 2008 campaign.
Alyssa Bradford returns for her third season with the Crusaders after contributing to Valpo’s team score in five of her six races last year, including both the Horizon League Championships and the NCAA Great Lakes Regional. Bradford cut over 40 seconds off of her career-best 5K time last year, running a 20:28 at the Notre Dame Invitational, and chopped 50 seconds off of her 6K time at the regional meet.
Rachel Howell also ran six times as a sophomore for the Crusaders, finishing among Valpo’s top-five on five occasions. Emily Thompson, the Crusaders’ third junior, did not run last year as a sophomore after competing four times as a freshman. Howell ran a career-best 20:09.47 5K at the Evansville Invitational last year, over two minutes faster than her fastest 5K as a freshman, and placed fifth for Valpo at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional with a time of 25:27.47 over 6K.
Caitlin Sauerhage is back for her second year in the Crusader uniform. In her first year running at Valpo, Sauerhage competed five times and was the third-fastest Crusader runner in all five races. She ran a season-best 5K time of 19:16.51 at the Evansville Invitational, just 42 seconds shy of Valpo’s all-time top-ten in the distance.
Whitney Bowman and Sara Christensen each raced six times for Valpo during their first season on the squad. Both runners posted season-best times at the Evansville Invitational, as Christensen ran a 20:26.48 to finish 55th and Bowman crossed the line 65th in 20:51.26 in the 124-runner field. Windy Santa Cruz took to the course three times in her first season with the Crusaders, while Jorie Ballun raced twice as a freshman for Valpo.
Two newcomers round out the 2008 Crusader women’s cross country squad. Lindsey Gilman joins the cross country team this year with sophomore eligibility. Gilman has competed for the Crusader track and field team during each of her first two years at Valpo, and played for the Valpo volleyball team during its 2007 season. Kristine Clay will be the lone freshman on this year’s team, coming to Valparaiso from Kalamazoo Christian H.S., where she was a two-time conference champion and twice earned All-Region accolades.
The schedule opens up at home for the 15th consecutive year, as the Crusaders take to the course at Sunset Hills Farm Park to host the annual Crusader Invitational on Friday, Sept. 5. Two weeks later, on Friday, Sept. 19, the squad heads down to Bloomington to compete at the Indiana Intercollegiates.
Notre Dame is the next destination, as the Crusaders will run in the Notre Dame Invitational on Friday, Oct. 3. The final tuneup for the league championship meet will be the NCAA Pre-Nationals, hosted this year by Indiana State, on Saturday, Oct. 18.
Valpo will venture outside of Indiana for the only time on the season for the Horizon League Championships, hosted by Green Bay, on Saturday, Nov. 1. Two weeks later, the NCAA Great Lakes Regional will be held in West Lafayette, and the NCAA Cross Country Championships will be contested on Nov. 24 in Terre Haute.
The Crusaders know what they have atop their lineup entering the 2008 campaign in Rolf, one of the nation’s fastest runners. Continued improvement from the rest of the squad could put the Crusaders in line to challenge for a Horizon League title in 2008.