The Duke women's cross country team has grown into a group ready to challenge for an NCAA Championship.

The Blue Devils began building a nationally competitive program when they brought in a stellar freshman class in 2002 of which five student-athletes began competing right away.

"When they came in as freshman, it was probably the first time we had a nationally-ranked recruiting class, so it was pretty big news for us," said head coach Kevin Jermyn.

Pictured from left to right, Liz Wart, Sally Meyerhoff and Natasha Roetter. (Duke)
With really no upperclassmen or national level runners to show them the ropes at the time, the freshmen had to learn quickly, which they did. Five of the six " Clara Horowitz, Sally Meyerhoff, Shannon Rowbury, Laura Stanley and Liz Wort " were Duke's five top runners as the team took 17th in the 2002 NCAA Championships.

"We didn't have much leadership when we came in as freshman," said Wort. "There were hardly any seniors and we were pretty much the bulk of the team, so having that kind of pressure on us freshman year was a little different than probably most of the other teams in the country."

"I don't think that's been done too many times where five true freshmen have led a top 20 cross country program," said Jermyn.

The group, which includes Natasha Roetter who did not compete in her freshman year, has continued to build on their initial success.

Horowitz, Meyerhoff, Rowbury and Roetter have all earned All-America honors during their careers, while Wort and Stanley have earned All-East Regional recognition.

"Things started really clicking during the outdoor track season of their sophomore year," said Jermyn. "We had seven girls qualify in distance events and that's when I think we started making some really major breakthroughs."

Last season was the group's best-ever as they captured the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship for the first time in school history, and went on to finish second at the NCAA Championships.

With that kind of success, the group now believes winning a national championship is an attainable goal.

"We were expecting to do well at nationals, but when we got second it was like ╦ťoh, my gosh, we almost won,'" said Wort. "We have pretty much all the same people running again with the addition of a few more really good ones. It's very realistic now."

The group " now all seniors " is also looking forward to serving as mentors to the incoming freshman class.

"Now we're in an interesting situation because once again we've had an incredible recruiting class," said Jermyn. "This freshman class is really lucky to be able to benefit from the extra guidance they can receive from the athletes in the senior class and make their transition even easier."

"I think that feeling of knowing we're role models for the younger athletes on our team, and having had to grow together and learn things on our own, that gives us more confidence in each other and our abilities," said Wort. "It gives us a different feeling."

One of the benefits of their growing process was the benefit of becoming a close-knit group " they live in the same off-campus apartment complex, socialize together and do volunteer work together.

"It's definitely quite a challenge to work all together and be a team, which is what I think we've gotten to the point of being this year," said Wort. "That's probably the biggest difference " is that we all have our individual talents and have actually come together as a team in the past couple years."

Duke begins its season at the San Diego Invitational on Sept. 10.