They might be coming off their best season ever, but you won’t hear Portland’s women’s cross country team talk much about outcomes. Sure, the Pilots finished 12th in the nation last year at the NCAA Cross Country Championships after coming in ranked only 23rd, but that’s just a byproduct of what they call “the process.”
“I don’t really look at it that way,” head coach Ian Solof said about the pressure to succeed. “I don’t look at it like we have to repeat that or we have to do as well. We talk a lot about the process, process of training, the process of recovery, the process of how to race, the process of having a good team dynamic and a program we feel good about.”
The process isn’t something confined to just sad Philadelphia 76ers fans. It’s how the women’s cross country teams sets goals, replacing outcome goals such as earning this place and achieving this time with process goals.
“We wanted to trust the process,” senior runner Stella Gillman said. “He (Solof) says it every season. We’re going to trust the process, and if you trust the process you’re going to get the results that you want.”
It’s what worked for them last season, as the Pilots ran to their best national finish as a team in program history. Now with two key runners gone, the team finds themselves once again not concerning themselves with the outcomes, knowing that whatever happens depends on their approach.
There’s a good reason for Solof to believe in the process. It worked for two of the best runners they’ve ever had: Taryn Rawlings and Lauren LaRocco, the leaders of the team last year and the two lone All-Americans who graduated this spring.
“I think that Taryn and Lauren are kind of irreplaceable,” Gillman said. “Just because not only their talent in running but they’re leadership roles that they played. And neither of them were very vocal about those roles. But they just showed all the young girls what it means to compete at this level...and be sustainable.”
LaRocco, who was nominated for NCAA Woman of the Year last month, set a program record by finishing 13th at the NCAA Championships in the 6,000-meter. It’s just one of many records set during her time here.
Rawlings, who holds the school record for the 1,500-meter, earned her first All-American honors for cross country by passing 24 runners in the final 2,000 meters to place 26th. She had finished 51st the year before.
But they weren’t always the strongest runners. Solof recalled when LaRocco finished only 75th at Regionals her freshman year. However, they are both products of the process Solof preaches, and Gillman and junior Jasmine Fehr recognize that.
“We’re looking at it like ‘Okay, they had to go through the process of getting there just like anyone else,’” Fehr said. “I try to think about that and have that long term view of success.”
Regardless, replacing two All-Americans is no easy task, and Solof is aware of it.
“Lauren and Taryn are two of our all-time best people and two of my favorite people and I would never say that we just replace them,” Solof said. “But if we continue to follow the guidelines of our program and do the work and take care of our athletes and make sure they work hard, but they have a good experience, then we’re going to have people develop and get better.”
Both Fehr and Gillman are optimistic about the team’s chances. Though they didn’t want to single out any one runner, they both were giddy to talk about each other.
Gillman joined the team as a walk-on four years ago. After redshirting last cross country season, Gillman set multiple personal records in track this spring and has grown significantly as a runner. Now on scholarship, Gillman is expected to be a top runner.
“Stella has been on the rise for a while, I think,” Fehr said about Gillman. “When I first got here I was like, ‘Okay, this girl, she runs for so long, and she runs like fast...I feel like it’s starting to come together.”
“We saw some of it last spring where she had a really good track season and ran big personal records,” Solof said. “And now she’s in really good shape and she’s been training hard all summer.”
Fehr joined the team last season as a transfer from Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. She was frustrated at times, dealing with injuries as she struggled to achieve the goals she had set for herself.
Fehr redshirted during the track season and hit the training hard over the summer, heading back home to Saskatoon in Canada. It paid off, with Fehr setting a PR in the 1,500-meter at 4:21 at the Canadian Nationals.
“Jasmine, she kind of struggled her first year and this summer we watched her go home...train really consistently and get on the train of momentum of doing well,” Gillman said about Fehr. “I think she’s really going to show everybody what she’s really made of because she didn’t get the opportunity last year, but she’s ready now.”
“The expectation is that she will be in that top group as well,” Solof said. “And Jasmine was on our top seven last year that ran at Nationals.”
Their expected roles weren’t given to them. Solof said it’s what they’ve earned during their time here on The Bluff.
“It’s a mix of what they’ve done in the past, their experience, the times they’ve run. And also just their current fitness level, especially with Stella,” Solof said. “The motivation and the focus is there.”
They’re already off to a good start, with the Pilots taking first as a team at the Linfield Harrier Classic in McMinnville, Oregon on Aug. 30. Four runners finished in the top five, with Ellie Misuraca taking the individual title with a time of 15:35.4 in the 4,000-meter. Gillman and Fehr didn’t race at Linfield, but will surely see action at the later races. Their next race will be the Portland State University Viking Rust Buster in Fairview, Oregon on Sept. 7.
Now, they will have to ride that momentum for the rest of the year if they want to find their way back to Nationals. But for now, all they can do is trust the process.
Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor at The Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.