Taylor Guenther was not sure what to expect in her senior cross country season.
Western Washington placed third in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, sixth at NCAA Division II West Regional and 12th at the NCAA-II Championships last season as Katelyn Steen capped a stellar career by placing fifth at nationals and earn U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-America status.
Guenther, a Prairie High School graduate who placed 51st at nationals as a junior, has been WWU’s leading runner for most of the season as the Vikings have been powered by improvement across the board and young talent resulting in solid team depth without the benefit of an elite individual runner topping the list.
“To be honest, I was kind of dismal about it because we lost three of our seniors who were on varsity, but we actually came together really nicely,” Guenther said, recalling her expectations for this fall before the season began. “All of us pull our own weight now, so we don’t have that elite runner, but it still works.”
In fact, it literally works better than ever.
WWU was runner-up to Chico State at the Nov. 7 regional meet at Monmouth, Ore., marking the highest finish in the program’s NCAA history, which began in 1998 after WWU changed its affiliation from the NAIA.
Clark County Vikings
Three other Clark County products will also compete for Western Washington at the 2015 NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships:
Sean Eustis (sophomore, Washougal High School) placed 28th at regionals, second finisher for the WWU men.
Will Jones (junior, Columbia River High School) placed 63rd at regionals, seventh finisher for the WWU men.
Sara Taferre (junior, Skyview High School) placed 74th at regionals, sixth finisher for the WWU women.
“It was pretty exciting for all of us, going in ranked fourth and then getting second was really exciting,” Guenther said. “A few of us had races that everything came together really nicely, and we were really happy. I was really happy with my race, and how the team performed as a whole.”
Guenther placed sixth with a time of 21 minutes, 21.29 seconds over the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) course, garnering All-Region honors for the second time. She was also sixth at the GNAC meet hosted by WWU on Oct. 24 in Bellingham, garnering All-GNAC status for the second time.
With the exception of a difficult regionals as a junior, Guenther’s results have been trending toward the front of the pack throughout her Vikings career.
As a freshman, Guenther was 27th at the GNAC meet and 49th at regionals as a freshman. She was 26th at the GNAC meet and 12th at regionals as a sophomore, also placing 94th at nationals. Last season, Guenther was 10th at the GNAC meet, 26th at regionals and 51st at nationals.
“I think just being smarter about training has helped me,” Guenther said of her progress as a runner. “Going into college, I was definitely pushing myself and trying to reach 70 miles a week and trying to do everything. Taking a step back once you get a little older, you’re like, ‘OK, there’s a limit to what I can do, and I need to find out what it is and how to take care of myself.’ I think that’s been a key to injury prevention, and things like that. I’m training the same amount as last year, but I’m a lot more consistent in the little things.”
More specifically, Guenther said she went about weight training wrong last season, lifting too often and with too much weight when she did.
“This year, I kind of reined myself in and was doing lower weights,” she said. “I think that really helps, because my weightlifting might have been actually subtracting from what I was doing.”
Competing at nationals for the seventh time in the last eight seasons, Guenther said the Vikings “have a really great team dynamic going right now,” working hard together and without any personal issues or drama among them.
The 2015 NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships will be held Saturday at the Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo. — just east of where Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma meet.
With the Vikings ranked No. 8 in NCAA-II, Guenther said, the goal is to finish at least that well. As an individual, her aim is to garner All-America status by placing among the top 40 finishers.
“Right now we’re ranked eighth, and we would obviously like to beat that ranking,” she said. “Personally, I’d like to place in the top 40. That would be my goal.”
WWU’s best team finish at NCAA-II nationals was eighth place in 2009, the roster including Hockinson High School graduate Sarah (Porter) Crouch — the individual runner-up in that race — and Mountain View High School graduate Lauren Breihof. The 1992 Vikings placed fourth at NAIA nationals.
The Joplin course begins with a 700-meter straightaway with some rolling hills but no dramatic elevation changes, Guenther said, and features a small loop but essentially a point-to-point course.
“There are a lot of turns and twists, which will be interesting because I haven’t really run on a course like that,” she said.
Weather for the race should be similar to Vancouver’s recent conditions, in terms of temperatures — and something else.
“It’s supposed to rain, but that’s nothing new for Washington athletes, so that’s OK,” Guenther said.
Western Washington University senior runner Taylor Guenther also competes in indoor and outdoor track, meaning that she is essentially always in season during the academic year.
Speaking of academics, the course and the track are not the only places where the Prairie High School graduate excels.
With a 3.88 cumulative grade-point average while studying communication sciences and disorders, Guenther is a three-time USTFCCCA NCAA Division II Cross Country All-Academic honoree. Those honors are yet to be announced for this season. She was named a GNAC Academic All-Star on Nov. 4, making her a three-time recipient of an honor for which freshmen are not eligible.
Because she is not busy enough with academics and athletics, she is also now busy applying to graduate schools for speech and language pathology/speech therapy programs.
“I’m in the process of applying to 11 different grad programs and doing all of the applications and all of that, and then a full load of courses and running cross country,” she said. “So it’s been a challenge, but I’m getting through it.”
Assuming she is accepted somewhere, she said, graduate school will undoubtedly be more stressful than undergraduate work. Academic awards “are nice to put on your résumé,” Guenther said, but the real benefit of balancing academics and athletics is the lessons learned about time management, reliability and responsibility.
“Having the experience of being a collegiate athlete also helps, just because it’s taught me a lot about managing my time, being reliable and things like that,” she said.