Hometown runners leading Gophers into championships

Minnesota has a chance to nail down an NCAA Championship today in Indiana.

Most Division I programs might need to comb through recruits across the country to find a winning formula.

Gary Wilson’s Minnesota women’s cross country team isn’t one of them.

The Gophers are a unique blend of hometown contributors that are putting together the finest season in school history.

Six of Minnesota’s seven runners today at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., are from Minnesota. Five of those are from the Twin Cities area. The meet is scheduled for 11:58 a.m.

The likes of senior Ladia Albertson-Junkans (Stillwater) and sophomores Jamie Cheever (Minneapolis), Heather Dorniden (Inver Grove Heights), Elizabeth Yetzer (Lakeville) and Sally Paulson (Inver Grove Heights), all pivotal members of this year’s crew, all hail from the Metro.

“It’s pretty rare,” Wilson said. “The upper Midwest – Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan – all have such quality high school coaches and kids, everyone recruits up here.”

They found Wilson’s program in a host of different ways.

Dorniden came to Minnesota to focus primarily on track.

Cheever originally came to the Gophers to be part of the soccer team. She said her parents wanted her to leave the state altogether.

“My dad went to college out of state and thought it was a good experience,” she said. “But in the end it was too perfect; I couldn’t pass it up.”

Albertson-Junkans said she thought about going to Columbia in New York. Because of fellow recruits and the proximity to home, she made the choice to come to Minnesota.

However this crop of hometown athletes found their way to the Gophers, Wilson isn’t shy about admitting the stars aligned for him and his program.

“I’ve coached for 40 years,” Wilson said. “You take it for what it is and enjoy it. The kids are enjoying it.”

This crew brought home the program’s first Big Ten championship and first regional title this season. Today, they’ve got a realistic shot at claiming, at the very least, a spot on the podium as a top finisher at the NCAAs.

If they do so, it might be because of the mentality and positive attitude that Albertson-Junkans said surrounded this program since her freshman year.

“There are so many positive people here, even when things don’t go the way you want,” she said. “I noticed it from my first day as a Gopher. The energy level is amazing.”

Apparently that type of sentiment is recognized by these former talented high school athletes from the upper Midwest who chose to stay home and build a program instead of following other opportunities.

Because of it, they’re working with each other and earning respect around the Big Ten and the country for their home state.

Their head coach isn’t bashful about how special he thinks this crew is for coming together and helping his program thrive.

“I feel lucky every day,” Wilson said. “These kids showed that you don’t have to go to the palm trees to run fast.”