BIRMINGHAM, Ala. –- Saginaw Valley State head coach Rod Cowan had a decision to make going into the NCAA Division II Winter National Championships Festival, and it wasn’t going to be an easy one.
Cowan was mulling the possibility of scratching senior Lauren Hill from the 5,000-meter event so she could run in the distance medley relay just an hour or so later. His reasoning was two-fold -– doing so would be a good chance to rack up as many team points as possible, and second, it would allow more Saginaw Valley State student-athletes to participate in the Festival.
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Doing both the 5,000-meter race and the distance medley relay wasn’t really an option, because there was too little time to recuperate between events. It had to be one or the other, and Cowan made the call. He moved Hill onto the distance medley relay team along with Emily Short, Diamond Taylor and Taylor Stepanski.
The move worked out, and the Lady Cardinals sixth with a time of 11:42.30 to earn All-American Honors. Still, Cowan’s decision was one that didn’t exactly thrill Hill at first.
“She cried for about two or three days because she really wanted to run the 5k,” Cowan admitted. “But I felt our best scoring opportunity as a program was going to be in the distance medley relay. She was mad. Her dad called me. He was mad.”
Hill came around, the way any good teammate would. It paid off Thursday night.
“It was kind of frustrating to go from an event that I’ve trained for and run for years, to go into something that’s a little more out of my element,” Hill said. “By no means would I consider myself a middle-distance runner. But it’s kind of cool. It gets into that team aspect, where it’s not just you. You’re relying on the strength and support of three other girls. You can’t win it by yourself.”
Cowan very easily could have caved. In Hill, there was a young woman who had transformed herself from a high-school soccer and basketball athlete into an All-American runner. There’s a huge difference in the three sports, and the journey to get to where she is today was sometimes difficult. Early in her career at Saginaw Valley State, there were times when she had to even battle for a spot on the travel roster.
“It was very different for me, because I had never trained the way we train here,” said Hill, who ran only one cross-country meet in high school. “It was very interesting. The whole concept of an eight-mile run was new to me.
“There were times when I questioned why I was doing it. I redshirted my whole freshman year because I got injured. It was a lot of time watching my teammates compete, re-habbing and struggling through workouts. It was a lot of frustrations.”
It was from that kind of humble beginning that Hill continued to work her way up through the ranks. Then, last fall, she grabbed All-American honors during the DII cross country national championships, finishing 19th out of 249 runners in a 6k event.
“Those first couple of years, as a head coach, I thought, ‘Are we wasting our time?’” Cowan said. “But track and field is one of those sports where if you work hard enough, you can have some success. She turned herself into an All-American. It’s just that simple.”
Check that, Coach. She’s now turned herself into a two-time All-American. A couple of years ago, Hill heard the story of a walk-on student-athlete who’d eventually scored All-American honors. The story struck a chord with Hill, and she’s now accomplished the very same thing.
“I was like, ‘That’s got to be the ultimate,’” Hill concluded. “You can really do whatever you put your mind to. It showed that even if you pretty much from nothing, you can build your way up to being something great.”