Gonzaga men’s basketball is often praised for its ability to bring in a talented freshman class year in and year out that is always promised to make an immediate impact on the Zags’ next season.
A new trend in a similar vein is starting to take place within GU’s women’s cross country program, and it’s already evident in the season’s early results.
This year’s freshman runners for the team have proven to be a vital piece of the program’s early success this season, consistently putting up strong performances right away.
“It’s really exciting for us to have been contributing so much already,” said freshman Grace Fahrney. “We always talk to each other about how we can’t wait for the next couple years to run together and see where we can go.”
At the team’s first meet of the year at the Clash of the Inland Northwest, GU placed first overall thanks to having five runners in the top 15. All of them were freshmen. Emily Phelps finished first for the Zags and fifth overall in the race with a time of 14:31.4, the ninth-fastest 4,000-meter time in GU history.
Two weeks later, the Zags claimed a second-place overall finish at the Cougar Classic where Fahrey placed seventh in the field and second for GU. It was the team’s first 6,000-meter race of the season, which posed a new challenge for the five freshmen who ran. The longest races in high school cross country are 5,000 meters.
“The race at Colfax was a lot of their first 6Ks, and so many of [the freshmen] ran competitive and embraced the increase in distance comfortably,” said head coach Jake Stewart.
After two races against local competition, the Zags expanded their sphere of competition when the team traveled to Minneapolis in late September to compete in the Roy Griak Invitational. Stewart brought seven runners on the trip to represent GU, four of whom were freshmen, accompanied by some of GU’s more seasoned runners in juniors Claire Manley and Ally Legard and senior Natasha Bernal.
The freshmen executed, all of them finishing in the top 60 in a field of over 100 runners, contributing to a fifth-place team finish. Manley was the first Zag to cross the line with a
19th-place finish and freshmen Grace Fahrney and Emily Phelps came across the line with Legard to place 37th, 38th and 39th consecutively.
“Gonzaga is definitely in a growth period right now, so for us to go to a big meet like the Griak Invite and perform as well as we did is kind of proof to ourselves that we’re ready for this, and I think it got everyone fired up for what’s to come and the postseason championships,” Fahrney said.
Although this year’s freshman class brought a lot of talent with them when they arrived on campus, a large portion of their mounting success thus far can be attributed to the leadership and mentorship of the upperclassmen.
“We have this team phrase, ‘relax and grind,’ which basically means to have fun on your runs, get to your business and work really hard for each other, which is something we always say,” Fahrney said. “That’s the main message that we hit on.”
Experienced athletes in the program have been instrumental in carrying on that motto, which advocates for the team to be about its business and work hard for each other while still having fun doing it. Taking a mentorship role is important to captains like Manley because that’s how they were integrated into the team culture when they were new at GU.
“For me, my mentors were some of the biggest reasons for my success and when they saw potential in me, they let me know,” Manley said. “So I try to do that with the freshmen and tell them that they can do big things and can be leaders, and just because they’re freshmen doesn’t mean they can’t be leaders in their own regard.”
The upperclassmen have made an assortment of efforts to integrate the new faces into the culture and make them feel like they belong. The entire team showed up a week before the start of the fall semester to bond and train together, and on that first night, the upperclassmen were inviting the freshmen to watch “Bachelor in Paradise” with them.
“I chose Gonzaga for the culture but I definitely was not expecting it to be as amazing as it has been,” Phelps said. “It’s been absolutely extraordinarily how welcome we felt immediately on the first day which has honestly made the freshmen really comfortable and successful.”
The upperclassmen have also formed groups with the younger runners where the older runners give them advice and write notes to them before races.
“One of the members in my group, Ally Legard, she wrote, ‘If you want it, go get it,’ and that was so impactful for me because running is such a mental sport and that aspect can have such a big impact on your performance,” Fahrney said. “So her telling me that I could do it as long as I actually wanted to, was really cool.”
The mental aspects of cross country reinforce strong companionship among teammates in order to cultivate success, and Stewart knows that. When he brings recruits on visits to GU, he’s not just looking at their talent, but how well they interact with the team. He said that building a strong freshman class like they have this year relies on not just the coaches, but the current runners as well. They give him feedback on how recruits get along with the team and if they could see them potentially buying into the program’s message and goals.
“We spent a lot of time around one another, so we don’t have to be best friends, but we have to be comfortable coexisting with one another and being in this for not just our own goals, but for the good that your teammates have,” Stewart said. “This is a hard sport, and if you can’t support each other, it just makes it that much harder.”
Despite Stewart saying that they don’t have to be, this year’s freshman class are all best friends with one another. That dynamic is even more unique considering the fact that there are 12 of them in the class, with a mix of both walk-ons and recruited athletes.
“Day one, we all clicked with each other, and there’s 12 of us, so that’s kind of surprising that we can all get along,” Phelps said. “But we always go out and have fun doing team activities. We push each other in practices and races but it’s never like a competition between us, but it’s more like we push each other for the team.”
The ability for the current freshmen to form such a tight bond is going to be essential to cultivating the program in the way that Stewart has been hoping for in order for this team to reach their potential.
“Our class needs to keep the message that the upperclassmen have instilled in us,” Phelps said. “Work hard, but also have fun. This team and this sport are supposed to be a good time, and it should never feel like a job or a drag. I think that as long as we keep the energy of this program up, it’s gonna be a great four years and I can really see this team heading to nationals in the next few years.”