Coach Halsell believes both Viking squads have top 10 capabilities
COLLEGE: 2011 USTFCCCA West Region all-star in cross country helping WWU to 12th place at nationals ... 2012 USTFCCCA West Region all-star in track in 3000 steeplechase ... GNAC All Conference in 3000 steeplechase and Indoor Mile ... Personal track bests of 4:43.24 in 1500, 5:09.42 in Mile, 10:50.32 in 3000 steeplechase and 17:56.41 in 5000 ... Personal cross country best of 22:08 in 6K.
HIGH SCHOOL: Attended Eastlake High School...competed in state cross country from 2007-2010...competed in state track in 2009 and 2011...personal bests of 2:23.10 in 800, 5:13.69 in 1600, 11:19.35 in 3200, and 18:36 in cross country 5000...four letters in cross country and three in track.
PERSONAL: Her father, Mark, competed in cross country and track for WWU.
Close bonds could help Western women's cross country team finish strong
By DAVID RASBACH, THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Western Washington University cross country coach Pee Wee Halsell learned all he needed to know about his women's team by looking in their eyes during a team meeting Tuesday evening, Nov. 19, 2013, as the Vikings prepared to head to the NCAA Division II National Championships on Saturday, Nov. 23, in Spokane.
"I saw determination in their eyes," Halsell said. "They want to go there and run the best they can and run hard for each other. They're so close as a team. That's exciting for me as a coach, because they sincerely care for each other and want to see each other succeed."
As close as the entire team is, perhaps nobody is closer than juniors Haley O'Connor and Katelyn Steen.
Of course O'Connor and Steen have had quite a few years to build a relationship.
Not only have they been teammates at Western for the past three years, they also went to the same high school, running cross country and track together at Eastlake in Sammamish.
"We've probably been running cross country together since we were in eighth grade," O'Connor said. "We were on the same club team for a year before we went to high school."
Surprisingly, O'Connor said it wasn't until they got to Bellingham that she and Steen really began to build a close friendship.
Now they're nearly inseparable - they're even roommates.
"Ever since we've gotten here, we've got to know each other and have grown super close," O'Connor said. "It's neat to know that she's always there for me, and I can be there for her."
O'Connor said Steen's sense of humor makes long training runs seem much more bearable, and the duo even enjoys going hiking and skiing together when they're not running.
They also like to reminisce about their experiences running and growing up together.
"We're always joking," O'Connor said. "I think how close we are kind of opens some of the younger girls up, especially the freshmen. When people see how close we are around each other, I think that makes them want to open up and be a part of that."
And that, in turn, has made the entire team closer as a group.
"I think the closeness of them is an important aspect," Halsell said. "It goes a lot deeper than just those two. ... In my mind, cross country is one of the ultimate team sports. I think it helps to have teammates that are really close to each other. The things I see with this team and the men's team - they're all about team. They want to do well individually, but they really want to help the team succeed."
Closeness and togetherness is not the only aspect the Vikings will draw from watching O'Connor and Steen on Saturday.
They also are the only two remaining members from the WWU women's team sent to the national championships the last time it qualified in 2011.
Steen finished 58th in 23 minutes, 9.0 seconds on the same 6-kilometer course that will be used Saturday to lead the Vikings to a 12th-place finish, while O'Connor was WWU's fifth scoring runner in 99th in 23:56.1.
"I was awestruck the whole time," O'Connor said. "I had no idea what was going on or what we were getting into. I remember riding the bus over there and thinking it was just like any other meet. ... You get to the start line, and there used to be 24 teams - now there are 32 - just so many runners. It's a big deal, and they make it a big deal."
Steen and O'Connor now hope to help the rest of the team prepare for that experience.
"It was cool to watch Haley talking the other night and to hear the excitement in her voice," Halsell said.
The experience is particularly important for O'Connor, because she missed last season with tendonitis on the inside and outside of her left ankle.
"It was really frustrating," O'Connor said. "Running on uneven surfaces really aggravated it. It made me mentally tough. I knew I was physically capable of competing, but I was in so much pain."
Halsell said O'Connor this year is, "working hard and being smart about how she runs to not put herself in position where she can get hurt." That's helped her place 27th at the Oct. 26 GNAC Championships in 21:43 and 35th at the Nov. 9 West Regional in 23:02.
Steen continued to run well in 2012, even without O'Connor by her side, finishing 15th in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships and 28th at the West Regional.
But this year, Halsell said, she has taken it to another level, placing second at the GNAC meet in 20:32 and third at the West Regional in 21:53.
"She's made a huge jump in being competitive," Halsell said. "Part of that is maturity, and part of it is believing she can do some pretty amazing things."
Together, Steen, O'Connor and the rest of the Vikings are hoping to do one more amazing thing this season.
WWU enters the national meet ranked 25th in the latest United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches poll, but Halsell said he could see the team finishing much higher.
"I think they can be top 15, but it's going to take a lot of work," Halsell said. "The last time I thought that about a team, we took 10th in Slippery Rock (Pa., in 2008)."
To do something like that again, the Vikings will need to rely on the determination Halsell saw in their eyes on Tuesday and work together as a group.
Fortunately, that's something this close-knit group has been doing all season.
"We definitely need to run as a pack," O'Connor said. "The last couple of meets, Katelyn has been out front and our No. 2 through 7 runners have been real close. If we can stay together and move up, that's going to help us finish strong."