Women’s cross country finds success and optimism in odd season

Minnesota’s women’s cross country team finished second in the Big Ten and fifth at the NCAA Championships in 2021.

Bethany and Megan Hasz run side by side at Les Bolstad Golf Course on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018.  The Hasz twins finished first and second overall for Gopher women's cross country at the 33rd annual Roy Griak Invitational.

Tony Saunders

Bethany and Megan Hasz run side by side at Les Bolstad Golf Course on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. The Hasz twins finished first and second overall for Gopher women’s cross country at the 33rd annual Roy Griak Invitational.

Brendan O'Brien, Sports Reporter

The success the Gophers women’s cross country team had in 2021 was a long time coming. And yet, more could be coming their way next season.

Back when Bethany and Megan Hasz — two of Minnesota’s top cross country runners — began running for the Gophers, they immediately competed in the fall 2016 cross country season but redshirted the following spring in track and field. At the start of their senior season, the Hasz twins were in a unique situation regarding their eligibility, having only one season left to compete in cross country but two left in track and field.

That left head coach Sarah Hopkins with a decision to make in the fall 2019 season: Either let Bethany and Megan compete in what would be their final season, or redshirt them to have their final season of cross country coincide with track and field.

Making the decision with the Hasz twins, Hopkins chose the latter for a variety of reasons. Redshirting gave them time to train away from competition and would theoretically position the team for a phenomenal 2020 season. But the team was not giving up on the season, and other runners had the opportunity to step up and lead the way for the Gophers.

“I told the team, ‘This is the plan, but my full expectation is that we’re still a national-level team. We’re not redshirting these guys and throwing away the regular season in the fall of 2019,’” Hopkins said.

Without Bethany and Megan, the Gophers were a different team, but finished third in the Midwest region and reached the NCAA Championships for the 15th time in 16 years. Runners had an opportunity to develop and improve, and Minnesota’s near future was looking promising.

COVID-19 certainly affected the Gophers’ plans for 2020. Hopkins said training without knowing if or when they would compete again was frustrating for the team and herself. She questioned whether she should have redshirted Bethany and Megan or if they should have competed last season.

Ultimately, she decided there was no point in looking back now. The decision paid off this winter, however, when the Gophers were able to compete in cross country at the same time as the indoor track and field season.

Heading into the strange season, Hopkins wanted the team to manage expectations but still compete at a high level. Minnesota finished second at the Big Ten conference meet with Bethany winning the individual title. Almost two months later, the Gophers finished fifth at the NCAA Championships after a 28th place finish just a season ago. It was the highest finish at the championships in program history.

“If we had finished top-15, top-20 at the championships, I would have been thrilled,” Hopkins said. “I told [the team] in a meeting that it’s really hard to go from 28th last year and make it to the podium the next year. Once the girls came close to being a podium team, they were joking with me about what I said before, so I ate my words.”

Because of the stellar season, some Gophers also received individual awards. Bethany was named the Big Ten Women’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year and also won the same award for the track and field indoor season, while Hopkins received Midwest Region Cross Country Coach of the Year honors from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

The fall 2021 season could be even more promising for Minnesota as many of the runners will be returning, using the extra year of eligibility given to student-athletes. Coming off of this successful season, Hopkins is not worried about her team being complacent, but is again making sure the Gophers set expectations for what will hopefully be a normal season.

“We’ve spent a long time being a good team, but it doesn’t come with a lot of pressure,” Hopkins said. “Now, being a team with the expectations of competing for a Big Ten and national title comes more pressure and some ideas that we need to change what we need to do when in reality, we got here doing what we do.”