Still At Work

While baseball season has come and gone and other spring sports have long since concluded their work for the season, there is one WVU team still competing -- and doing so at a remarkably high level.

As most Mountaineer fans have already turned the lion's share of their attention toward offseason football conditioning and the trappings that surround that rite of summer, West Virginia's women's track and field team has quietly turned in perhaps the best outdoor season in program history.

Coming off a program-best second-place finish at the Big East championship meet in early May (a mere 10 points behind Louisville, which won for the fourth-consecutive season), head coach Sean Cleary's team was brimming with confidence.

It backed that up with another stellar outing at the NCAA regional meet, performing well enough to send a school-record seven runners to next weekend's national championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cleary has been around the WVU track and cross country programs for 20 years, having been a runner for then-coach Dr. Martin Pushkin. WVU has enjoyed success in women's track for many of those years, but there is a difference this time around.

"We've had very good, well-rounded teams in the past, but what we have going on right now is we have the best quality covering more events than we've ever had," Cleary said.

That opinion is borne out by statistics. West Virginia scored in 13 of the 21 events at the Big East championship -- again, a school record. And Cleary said it's not out of the question for any of the seven athletes heading to the national championship meet to score points again.

"The track and field team just took two giant steps forward this year," Cleary said. "[April] Rotilio [400-meter run] is an awesome leader. Chelsea Carrier [heptathlon, 100-meter hurdles] is just a monster. They're both just great kids. Katelyn Williams [high jump] gets lost in the mix a bit -- no school records and she didn't win anything -- but she went to the Big East meet and scored 14 points. Probably behind Chelsea and one other athlete ever, she's the highest point-scorer at the Big East meet.

"So yeah, a lot of things are coming together."

Among other reasons for optimism for Cleary, Kate Harrison won the 10,000-meter run at regionals and could compete for the national title in that event.

And then there is Keri Bland, the Fairview native and nine-time All-American, who is back for one last trip to nationals in the 1,500-meter run -- an event she earned All-America honors in last season.

Success, Clearly said, has begotten success.

"It's awesome," the coach said. "When we're at the Big East meet, all day long they're announcing West Virginia's winning. There's Rotilio on the track and she wins her quarter. There's Carrier, she wins another. It's contagious.

"It's going down the stretch at a basketball game, and it doesn't matter what you're ranked or who you're playing, you're winning. It's contagious to the fans and to the kids. We go to the regional meet, and it's pretty much the same thing. Everybody who competed was performing to the highest levels they're capable of."

Thus, Cleary (in his fourth year in charge of the Mountaineer track and cross country teams) is reasonably optimistic about the possibility for another lofty finish at the national championships.

But each of his athletes will have to perform exceptionally well to add points to WVU's total, as only the top eight finishers in each event count towards the teams' scores.

"There's the perfect day: the weather is perfect, the wind, the temperatures, and you compete at your best," Cleary said of the ideal scenario. "But if we get out there and it's 90 [degrees] and it's rain, can our kids jump off a board and not get intimidated that they're going to fall on the long jump? I wouldn't put it past anybody we bring to the meet to score next week. But it's difficult -- eight or nine thousand participate in each event across the country, and only the top eight [at nationals] will score.

"Probably [finish as a team] between 10 and 20, I think we'd be very, very happy coming home. And if a couple of girls exceed just by a little bit, yeah, we could potentially slip into the top 10. In track and field, there's 335 schools, so if you finish somewhere in there as a program, you should be real happy."

A top 10 finish would be the best in program history -- another in a series of firsts attained under the leadership of Cleary.

But the highly-successful coach, who has directed the Mountaineer programs to four-straight top 10 finishes in cross country, back-to-back top 20 indoor track seasons and last year's 16th place finish at the outdoor national championships, is quick to credit his athletes for what has already been a stellar season.

"Our junior and senior leadership on the track, I believe, is what made the difference this year," Cleary said.

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