Gonzaga redshirt junior Claire Manley sprints to the finish line at the Cougar Classic in Colfax, Washington.

Before its final race of the season at NCAA West Regionals three weeks ago, Gonzaga women’s cross country head coach Jake Stewart made a promise to his runners. 

He told them he would find a way to nationals in 12 months and that he didn't care what he'd have to do to make good on that promise.

That statement only seems lofty for those who don’t know Stewart. 

“The program's done it,” Stewart said. “We've been to the national meet. ... We were a lot better this year than we have been in the past. So, why not start considering that to be our goal?” 

Last year, when Stewart took over late in the summer, right before the season started, GU finished 24th at regionals. This year’s GU team finished 15th in the West region, its best finish since 2015.

“No doubt in my mind that he’s one of the best coaches in the nation,” said sophomore Liz Hogan, a transfer from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. “I wanted that environment, I wanted that coaching style, just a little bit more pressure and a little bit more push from my coach and from my teammates. that's exactly what I've gotten here.”

His runner have no problem with those standards.

“At my old school, no one really had that high of expectations," Hogan said. "No one had those lofty goals or really expressed wanting to do something that feels out of reach. It’s cool to have a coach that believes in us and that we’re all capable of doing it.”

That growth can be attributed to a number of factors. A talented class of freshmen, the first that Stewart actually recruited, energized the Zags throughout the season. Four of GU’s top seven at the end of the season were true freshmen, namely Makenna Edwards, Emily Phelps, Alicia Anderson and Brittney Hansen.

“[The freshmen] were really inspired and ready to run," Hogan said. "I think that it made a lot of the older girls be like, all right, we have some younger girls that are checked in, and that makes us check in."

In September, the  Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis, Minnesota, gave a glimpse of what this team was capable of early in the season. The Bulldogs placed fifth overall behind strong performances from old and new faces. Redshirt junior Claire Manley led the pack with a 19th-place finish and Ally Legard, finally healthy after missing last season, picked off over 20 runners in the last kilometer.

Manley’s breakout season wasn’t just limited to the Griak — she torched the West Coast Conference in her first year back after redshirting. As GU’s top runner, she finished first at the Cougar Classic and sixth at the WCC Championships en route to making the All-WCC first team. 

“That's just work,” Stewart said. “It's just hard work, believing in yourself and doing things right.”

But that individual success is less consequential to Manley — she’s seen that her team can do more. 

“There were so many great lessons learned, we got better along the way and now, we can close that chapter of learning,” Manley said. “Next season, it'll be like, 'OK, let's take what we learned and we're going to go.' We don’t need any more lessons.”

Opportunity for further progress awaits the Bulldogs. Every runner in GU’s top seven except for graduate transfer senior Natasha Bernal is set to return next fall. If this year’s freshman class is any indication, future recruiting from Stewart will continue to be a strength.

“We we were running our best at the end of the season,” Stewart said. “And that's what we want to continue to do.”

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @connorjgilbert.

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