Price making big, quick strides each year

Junior Cross Country athlete Stephanie Price sits down to talk about the upcoming NCAA Cross Country championships and her recent award for athlete of the year at Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday.

Simon Guerra

Junior Cross Country athlete Stephanie Price sits down to talk about the upcoming NCAA Cross Country championships and her recent award for athlete of the year at Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday.

Derek Wetmore

Steph Price, fresh off winning Midwest Region Athlete of the Year for cross country, will lead her team into the NCAA Championships on Monday. The Gophers made the 31-team field as an at-large qualifier. For Price, itâÄôs the final test in a prolific junior season highlighted by a regional championship title her last time out, just the second in team history. But this wasnâÄôt always the intended destination for Price. The Mankato native ran track all through high school but didnâÄôt join cross country until her senior year, and she committed to Minnesota academically before deciding to walk on the team just a few months before school started. She climbed steadily, winning Freshman of the Year her first season and becoming a top-seven contributor as a sophomore, helping the Gophers to a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Championships. Then things really took off. âÄúI knew I was getting better, but I didnâÄôt really think I could have an impact until this season,âÄù she said. Objectively speaking, âÄúan impactâÄù is an understatement. Price has been the teamâÄôs top runner all season long, with runner-up performances in the Griak Invitational and the Big Ten Championships and the first-place run at the Regional Championships. She hopes for an All-American finish this weekend but said she knows the team needs her to achieve beyond âÄújust All-American.âÄù âÄúThis is a good meet, there are good people running in this meet,âÄù head coach Gary Wilson said. âÄúWeâÄôre not running against sisters of the poor here.âÄù As a 26-year coaching veteran, Wilson has been through this before, now leading his team to a school-record sixth consecutive appearance at nationals. Whenever he explains something going on with the team, he draws on past wisdom, and he says for nearly every incident, heâÄôs seen it in years past with different faces. He always has a story about one of his former elite runners, and now Price has become one of those stories. âÄúOh, sheâÄôll be a story,âÄù he said. âÄúThe story about Steph is the very simple fact that she was so driven as a freshman to find a magic formula to improve that she would visit my office at least once a week saying, âÄòI want to get better. I want to be good.âÄô âÄú Price said itâÄôs difficult to acknowledge joining a group of the programâÄôs top runners while sheâÄôs still running for the team. âÄúSometimes you forget that youâÄôre a part of this legacy, itâÄôs sort of surreal,âÄù she said. âÄúWhen you take a step back itâÄôs pretty cool to be counted among the list of elites.âÄù The team will make a roster switch for Monday with Claire Rindo running in place of Kayla Wagner. Wagner will join Laura Docherty as traveling alternates. MenâÄôs team expects to surprise Anyone who has ever watched menâÄôs basketball teams huddled around a television set awaiting the announcement of their March Madness fate can understand why menâÄôs head coach Steve Plasencia described his teamâÄôs selection as a âÄúmoment of elation.âÄù The team was gathered at an airport watching results online when the NCAA picked Minnesota as the 31st and final team. âÄúWe didnâÄôt have any doubt about whether we could make it,âÄù Ben Blankenship said. âÄúItâÄôs just a matter of being able to perform like we knew we could.âÄù The team had a poor pre-NCAA meet performance hanging over its head, but Minnesota has been a much different team since that weekend. For that reason, Plasencia thinks his team will finish considerably higher than their current ranking. âÄúThe elation of those guys at that moment was big, but IâÄôll tell you what, weâÄôre not the 31st [best] team in that field,âÄù Plasencia said. He noted that there were about 15 teams with more talent than the Gophers but that his team has already beaten some teams in the field multiple times this season. After taking 12th at pre-NCAAs, the team bounced back with third-place finishes at both the Big Ten championships and Midwest Regional championships. âÄúWhen you donâÄôt have a good race, thereâÄôs always some soul searching and shake-ups. We went through that prior to the Big Ten meet and the guys did well,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúI donâÄôt know how we found that after the pre-national meet or why we didnâÄôt have it there, but weâÄôre in the national meet now so it doesnâÄôt matter.âÄù This is the teamâÄôs 13th appearance at NCAAs in 14 years, but getting there this year without standout runner Hassan Mead begged noticing. âÄúHonestly I think if the team were to say, âÄòWith Hassan, weâÄôd have so much better places.âÄô But I think thatâÄôs a huge cop out so we donâÄôt use that,âÄù Blankenship said. âÄúWe did what we needed to do, and weâÄôre in, now itâÄôs just a matter of where we stack up at nationals.âÄù