By Woodard, Dale on November 11, 2019.
The Lethbridge Kodiaks women’s cross country running team has raced to the top of the national podium.
And they braved the elements to do it.
Arriving in Grande Prairie for the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association championship just in time for a hefty blast of winter, the Kodiaks women’s team of Sophia Nowicki, Anna LeBlanc, Rosie Bouchard, Vildana Rekic, Janelle Graham and Sydney Crowe edged Champlain College Saint-Lambert from Quebec by a single point for the Kodiaks third national championship and first since winning the second of back-to-back titles in 2004.
Carrying the pressure of being the number-one ranked team in the CCAA all season, the Kodiaks not only lived up to that top billing, but improved on their silver medal at last year’s CCAA championship.
They also dealt with Old Man Winter, who pelted the Peace Country with minus-15 conditions complete with a stiff wind and 15 centimetres of snow blanketing the trails at Muskoseepi Park.
“They did really well, everything just came together,” said Kodiaks cross country head coach Simon Schaerz, whose team was also represented by Connor Jackson and Cooper Cheshire, racing individually on the men’s side. “The nice thing was just watching as a coach and seeing what was going on. We knew it was going to be cold and we knew it was going to be nasty and they did a really good job at making the best out of it. But we’ve been running in snow and moisture, so they were ready for it.”
“They came in with a different attitude. I think some of the other schools were a bit shell-shocked by the weather. I was talking to some of the coaches from Quebec and they had 10 and 15 degrees, beautiful weather. So to them it was a huge shock.”
With each team’s top-four runners counting in the overall standings, Nowicki, LeBlanc, Bouchard and Rekic combined for 49 points, while Graham and Crowe provided some depth.
Nowicki brought home an individual medal as the the two-time reigning Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference champion and last year’s national champion finished the 6-km course in 25:22 to win the bronze and be named a CCAA all-Canadian.
Meanwhile, LeBlanc and Bouchard crossed the finish line less than a second apart with nearly identical times of 26:58 and 26:59 in 15th and 16th place, respectively. Rekic finished 31st, while Graham was 42nd and Crowe was 72nd.
“It was still a really close battle in the way the rankings were, that’s more or less how it materialized,” said Schaerz. “Red Deer slid a couple of spots further down, but everybody who was supposed to be in the mix, was in the mix.”
Champlain College Saint-Lambert was ranked second nationally behind the Kodiaks.
“Had we tied, we would’ve won on the tiebreaker,” said Schaerz. “What they do is they go based on the last score of the runner. So the team that has the higher ranking for its runner would win. So we had a bit of a buffer. Even from second to third, and especially from third to fourth, I think Red Deer missed the podium by one point. It was very, very close.”
The distance in the standings between the teams can vary from year-to-year.
“Last year we were second by a bigger margin, but it just depends on the year. Sometimes a single runner can make that big of a difference
“At the ACAC championship last year we only won by one point and then this year we won by eight points. It really depends, but it’s not uncommon for the teams to be that close to one another.”
Of course, there was the waiting period between the unofficial times and the official times being posted.
Even though they were pretty sure they had it locked up, the Kodiaks still had to cool their heels a bit, and not just because of the weather.
“The unofficial results are usually available quickly,” said Schaerz. “But there’s also an hour where teams can protest. So we had the unofficial times and we were a little excited. Then when the officials times came out we could really celebrate. I was nervous until the banquet when we were finally let up on the stage and they handed us the banner.
“But then at the moment, of course, they were all very very happy. Everybody has a different reaction. There are some who have been with us for four years, so for them they’ve been to two national championships and they were with us last year and got close. It was very good for them.”
For Nowicki, It’s the third time she has made the podium at the national championship, also winning bronze in 2017.
“For Sophia, she got the bronze medal, but for her the big thing was to win it as a team,” said Schaerz. “They were in a bit of disbelief and then joy and happiness after the fact.”
Now, the Kodiaks bring home the hardware for display.
“Even just a banner that they hand out, you have this tangible thing piece of evidence of your accomplishment that we can hang up now in the gym,” said Schaerz. “For us, we have a national championship winning banner to hang in the center court. We have a nice trophy to put in the display case for college.”
Jackson and Cheshire had top-10 placements at the ACAC championship in Calgary to qualify to race individually at nationals.
Jackson placed 15th with a time of 30:03, while Cheshire was 45th in 31:22.
“They both did really well,” said Schaerz. “I think, for them, they felt weird about not having the rest of the boys with them, but they did the best they could. For Connor to finish 15th, that was an improvement from last year. Cooper didn’t have as good of a day as he’s had in the last few weeks. He was a little further behind Connor, but he was still happy and excited to just make it to that event. They were happy to of made it to nationals and had the opportunity to run. They’ll be very motivated as a team next year to come together and qualify. I think, especially for Cooper, Connor and Justin. They’re going to be very motivated. We’ll have some additions to the team next year and I wouldn’t be surprised if they put themselves into a position to contend for an ACAC championship.”
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