Leading the Pack
- By Daniel Whitehead
- October 27, 2011 05:00 PM
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – WVU cross country coach Sean Cleary will be forever grateful he responded to a letter of inquiry from a high school senior out of Toronto in the winter of 2007.
The contents of the letter were in regard to the direction Cleary wanted to take with his program and how he helps student-athletes with their running goals beyond their collegiate years.
Because of his response to the letter, Cleary was able to land Kate Harrison, a talented runner from Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute who had recently taken seventh place in the 3,000-meter run at the 2006 Canadian Junior Nationals.
“Coach Cleary has a pretty solid reputation in Canada, so people had been recommending West Virginia to me,” Harrison recalled. “What he had to say was everything I was looking for because he has a long-term focus and wants you to achieve your goals beyond college.”
Now a fifth-year senior, her WVU accolades include a second place 5,000-meter finish at the 2010 BIG EAST outdoor championships and a stellar 2011 outdoor track season in which she came in first place in both the 10,000 meters at BIG EAST and the NCAA East regional. She topped the year off with first team All-America honors in the 10,000 meters with a second-place finish at the NCAA Championships in June.
Redshirting the 2010 cross country season, Harrison decided to focus her efforts on the Canadian World Cross Country Trials in Guelph, Ontario. Her efforts paid off as she came in first place at the event, prompting coach Cleary to say at the time that ‘Kate has proven that she has the ability to be near the lead of the NCAA Championship next fall.’
Harrison acknowledged that the race helped mold her perception of competition and her ability to race with the top runners.
“That race was a big turning point for me,” she said. “It was the first big race I had ever won and it gave me a lot of confidence. There were a lot of international racers there, so being up there with them made me realize I could run with anyone in the NCAA.”
As a senior and team leader, Harrison hopes to use her talent and experience to guide the Mountaineers into the championship portion of the season. She has two first-place finishes on the year, the latest coming from the Penn State National on Oct. 14 where she paced the field of 268 runners.
“It’s always a boost when you win,” she said. “It was a really good tune-up for me and the whole team to win. It was our first win in awhile, so we’re feeling good about ourselves heading into the BIG EAST.”
Although she redshirted last season, Harrison has significant experience in big races as evidenced in her participating in the 2008 and 2009 BIG EAST races. She came in 21st place at the 2009 league race.
“It’s been a couple of years since I’ve run at BIG EAST, but I’ve made big jumps since then,” she said. “My goal is to be at the front of the race and be able to compete with the top girls. The best girls in the BIG EAST are also the best girls in the country, so the BIG EAST will be a great preview for what’s coming at nationals. Everyone’s ready to go and getting into good racing shape at the right time.”
Hoping for its fourth Top-10 national finish in five years, the Mountaineers hope to earn at-large points at the conference race and the NCAA Mid-Atlantic regional on Nov. 12 to qualify for nationals.
“At BIG EAST, we mainly hope to score points,” Harrison said. “That’s the main goal because it is such a strong region. We’ll peak at nationals, but at BIG EAST, we hope to earn points to get to nationals. We’ll try to win it, but it’s a tough conference. Everyone looks at the BIG EAST when predicting the winners at nationals. If we do well at BIG EAST, we know we’ll do even better at nationals because we’ll be even more prepared with our training.”
A former hockey player and occasional golfer before her running career, Harrison accepts her role as a senior and leader with determination and consistency.
“I’m not a very vocal leader, but I like to lead by example,” she said. “Doing all the little things and right things will help you be successful, and the younger girls will see that. They pick up on things and learn them with time. If they ever get down, I hope to be there to tell them to have patience and to keep at it.”
Excited to work toward another Top 10 national finish this season, Harrison acknowledged that WVU has become one of the premier running schools in the country.
“All the big running schools like Villanova, Stanford and Oregon get all the national recognition,” she said. “At West Virginia, we’ve come along quietly as one of the elite programs. There’s a very strong possibility that we can finish in the Top 10 again this year and it makes you realize that we’re at that level and building this program. We’re up there with a lot of the big running-tradition schools.”
Having found what she was looking for in a collegiate running program, Harrison has played her role in helping West Virginia’s program arrive to where it is today.