From 1989 to 2010, the Villanova University women’s cross country team dominated at the national championship level. They won nine titles as team, produced nine individual champions and, throughout the school’s history, sent seven runners to the Olympics.
It’s a daunting and historic legacy, and one that the current generation of Villanova athletes know well. But how they did it is not so complicated. We wanted to find out just how this legacy happened so we had conversations with five members of Villanova’s nine cross country national championship teams - they said the secret behind the team’s long history of success is not so much a secret.
“It is actually a very simplistic formula, and it works and it’s trusted, and you really believe in it from the moment you get there because of the history,” Kristine Jost, a member of the 1998 National Championship team, said. “You are honored and privileged to be a part of this formula, [so] you work the formula, and you patiently, eagerly, humbly work for the results.”
But what is the formula? Why has this one team won four more national championships than Stanford, five more championships than Oregon and BYU and at least seven more national titles than any other team in the country? And what will it take for the Wildcats to capture another NCAA title?It’s about the coaches, Jost said, the veteran coaches and the winning culture they create.
Marty Stern arrives. The winning beginsThe year is 1984. Women’s cross country had been introduced as an NCAA sport three years prior, and Marty Stern is beginning his coaching career with the Wildcats. He’s 48 years old, a former Air Force serviceman, a Penn Relay champion and a future legend in the metropolis of Philadelphia, home of Villanova University. And he’s starting to build what will become the most successful women’s cross country team in history. Stern begins.
His team finished ninth that year at the NCAA Championships, a five-place improvement from the year before, but eight places lower than where Stern will ultimately take his team. Three years pass. It’s 1987, and the Villanova women’s cross country team does not qualify a team to compete at the NCAA Championships. Stern still does not have a title. But he’s getting ready.
In the fall of 1989, in Annapolis, Maryland, Stern’s team, led by senior Vicki Huber, stuns the running world. Huber, a Delaware native, crosses the line at the NCAA Championships in front of the entire field. She’s an individual national champion, but more importantly, she’s a catalyst for one of the greatest dynasties in women’s cross country history. Huber’s teammate Kathy (Franey) Fleming finishes 12th, teammate Sonia O’Sullivan takes 26th, future Olympian Kim Certain takes 50th and Cheri Goddard finishes as the fifth Villanova runner at the meet in a position that helps her team prevail as national champions for the first time. A tradition has begun. 1989. 1990. 1991. The Wildcats continue to win.
We found this classic clip of Stern talking about the right and wrong way to pass:
Jen Rhines helps keeps the winning tradition alive
Enter Jen Rhines, a freshman runner who came to Villanova in 1992 to be part of the legacy established by Stern. Rhines’ entered the program hoping to learn from the other girls on the team, assimilate into the culture and atmosphere of excellence created by her older teammates and help her team win another championship. Yet, her first year on the team was rocky. She didn’t improve like she expected and ultimately finished 98th at the NCAA Championships overall and sixth on her team. Frustrated, Rhines turned to her veteran teammate Sonia O’Sullivan for some advice, not just on running but on life.
“It was just changing my mentality that made the biggest difference,” Rhines said. “Having Sonia help me and having other leaders on the team just kind of helped carry that over, but it was definitely more of a mental commitment than anything else.
But Rhines wasn’t finished. She helped the team win a third time in 1994, but it would be another four years after that, however, before Villanova reclaimed its title.
Carrie Tollefson becomes a champion
During Rhines’ senior year, she became a mentor for a young runner from rural Minnesota, a strong, consistent distance athlete who would go on to compete in the 2004 Olympics: Carrie Tollefson. Driven by the legacy of the program, Tollefson came to Villanova with the expectation of being part of a winning team. She held herself to a standard of excellence, a mentality of winning that she said came from being surrounded by national champions and future professional runners.
Congratulations to Dawson-Boyd cross-country and track legend Carrie Tollefson, who will be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame on July 2. #mshsl @CTolleRun @nfhs @CarrieTollefsonhttps://t.co/w6znbuOfLu pic.twitter.com/7eGVrqvFuw— John Millea (@MSHSLjohn) March 2, 2018
“There was pressure, but not externally from Villanova. You got there, and you just wanted to be like everyone. I think it was more so from myself, where I was nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with Jen Rhines who was the NCAA champion,” Tollefson said. “But when you want to be surrounded by greatness, you expect yourself to be great, and that’s what I wanted in life, so I was ready to accept the challenge.”
It has been 20 years since I won my first NCAA championship! I remember it like it was yesterday but I definitely don't remember reapplying the 💄before the awards! Wowsa 😊! Get after it to all of the runners I had the privilege to speak to tonight at the #NCAAXC banquet! Your legs may go fast but time seems to go even faster so enjoy the moment!! #runhard #believe #livefortoday
“They told me daily how much they believed in me and how much potential they saw in me,” Tollefson said. “I owe them a lot, and I’m very thankful that I have a Villanova degree, but also just so proud to be part of that Villanova family tradition.”Of all the medals she’s won and the bib numbers she’s worn, Tollefson said only one item from her running career hangs in her home in Minnesota: her Villanova cross country jersey.
The importance of the Villanova 'V'
That jersey, the one with the famous V across the front outlined with baby blue stripes symbolized not just a national championship for Tollefson, but also for Jost. It became an icon of what Villanova cross country stands for, a trademark of teamwork, of discipline, of excellence. And eleven years after Tollefson and Jost took home the national championship title, the new crop of athletes wearing the V reclaimed the title that had eluded the team for the previous decade.
Procaccio, the current coach of the Villanova Wildcats and an alumna of the school, took over the program in 2000. Her team won the 2009 NCAA title, their eighth team championship. A junior on that team, Amanda Marino, said the 2009 victory was the result of not only Procaccio’s coaching but the leadership of runner Sheila Reid, the NCAA Cross Country individual champion the following year.
Head Coach of the @NovaTrackXC women's squad Gina Procaccio joined the Penn Relays Podcast Series, discussing last year's success for the Wildcats and what Nova looks forward to this weekend!— Penn Relays (@pennrelays) April 24, 2018
🗣🎙➡️ https://t.co/NLs4hn9PAu pic.twitter.com/ugXCFTXhgc
Reid, according to Marino, kept the athletes “in check” and helped them avoid the temptations of “normal college life.” Marino’s stories of Reid’s leadership mirror the ways in which Rhines talked about O’Sullivan, and the parallels between these championship teams highlight the tradition and culture of mentorship that has been fostered over the years within the Villanova cross country program.
The women on the team were expected to operate with laser focus, balancing constant training with rigorous academic standards while also supporting one another, Marino said. Yet, this lifestyle wasn’t simply a demand of the coaches. Marino, Jost and Rhines all explained that they never felt pressure from Stern, O’Sullivan, or Procaccio. Instead the desire to live the lifestyle of a professional runner came from the athletes themselves. The coaches supported the athletes by recruiting like-minded, committed people to the team every year.
“Gina did a really good job of finding people who she knew had the right mentality, even though maybe their credentials weren’t as good as other prospects, but she knows what she’s looking for in a personality,” Marino said. “I think even more so, she’s doing a better job with that now because you know I follow it very closely, and I think she just has this way of recruiting these girls who are mature beyond their years and they aren’t petty, they want to work together and achieve a goal.”
Marino describes the 2009 and 2010 championships teams as “special,” the perfect mix of talent, determination and health, the kind of combination that she said is needed to win championships. But since Marino and her national championship teammates graduated, Villanova has been title-less in cross country. Not one national championship since the most successful program in history hoisted that victor’s trophy. Can the Wildcats come back? Is this the year for another Villanova victory?
The Wildcats finished 12th at the national championships last year, led by now-senior Bella Burda who finished 65th, and are predicted to finish 8th this season as a team, according to the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. In addition to Burda, three of the other four scorers from the 2017 season return in 2018, and the Wildcats will have a chance to test their talents for the first time this season when they compete in the Main Line Invitational in Pennsylvania on Sept. 14.
The reigning NCAA champion, New Mexico, however, enters this year as the unanimous No. 1 pick. New Mexico also returns Ednah Kurgat, the 2017 individual champion and 6k record holder along with two other scorers from 2017 and three transfers who could help the team defend their title in 2018. Villanova and New Mexico will go head-to-head at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin on September 28. T
The Wildcats’ road to another national championship this year will be difficult, and Marino said another first place finish would require the perfect combination of hard work, luck and elite performances. But, she said, it’s not impossible, just as long as the athletes stay healthy, find their leaders and, of course, honor the Villanova 'V.'