The 2016 season of the Point Loma women’s cross country team hasn’t been just “good.” It’s been historic. In their six tournaments between early September and now, they have managed to place in the top three fastest time averages, including a second place finish in the PacWest Championships. They also placed first at the Triton Classic in early October, the first top finish at a tournament for any Point Loma cross country team since 2010.
“They’re the most talented team that has ever been here [in terms of] distance runners,” head coach Jerry Arvin said when asked what has gone right so far this season. “They race well, and they’re running at the level they should be running. It’s not like they’re overachieving. They work well as a team.”
As of this writing, Point Loma Nazarene University is currently ranked No. 18 in the NCAA Division II national rankings for cross country. Four teams in the West region are ranked ahead: Chico State (No. 7), Cal Baptist (No. 9), Alaska Anchorage (No. 11), and Simon Fraser (No. 16).
“Coach Arvin just keeps saying that we have the capability of winning. He’s never really been able to say that for any team before,” said Jordan Sienkiewicz, a key freshman runner for the team. “Nobody’s even heard of Point Loma before, at least nationally; this is our first time being ranked nationally.”
Perhaps the most significant change that has propelled the women’s cross country team to their current status is the addition of sophomore Hannah Benoit Bucher, who transferred from Arizona State University. In every single tournament this year, she was the fastest representative on the Point Loma team, and in three tournaments (Biola Invite, Master’s Mustang Challenge, PacWest Championships) she managed to rank second out of all individual runners.
“Hannah Benoit Bucher has been the top runner every meet. You can’t deny her impact has helped translate this team into being as good as they are. But even if something had happened to her and our second runner, Brianna Bartello, we still would have finished second,” said Arvin in reference to the PacWest Championships. “It was that much difference between second and third. The consistency has been there from the Bartello twins (Brianna and Marissa), Alex Hernandez, Hannah Bucher and Jordan Sienkiewicz.”
Sophomore Josie Frye agreed that the team as a whole, particularly the long-term chemistry that has developed, is a crucial factor to recent success. “We’re definitely faster. I think the entire team dynamic is a lot more committed to doing well. We’re also a lot closer. We race for each other, the team, and the coach. You start to think about other teammates, and you want to push hard for them.”
Being successful, of course, isn’t without its struggles. Arvin and Frye briefly explained how illnesses and concussion issues had a slight negative impact on the team’s first couple weeks of the season. Sienkiewicz also explained how real the mental and physical struggle is during a race.
“The PacWest Championships in Hawaii was probably the muddiest, most-challenging course we’ve ever done. We ran without socks on and needed to tape our shoes to our feet. It was about mental toughness,” said Sienkiewicz. “During those middle miles, you hit a wall and have all these negative thoughts come into your mind. We focus on keeping God next to us and specific verses in our head. It’s really helpful, especially knowing that your purpose is to glorify God.”
Coach Arvin also explained that the chemistry and teamwork between teammates has had a major impact. “It’s not like a team sport… [but] they get together and find each other. One of the things they [do] is they find a teammate and work with that teammate.”
On Saturday, November 5, the women’s cross country team will be competing at the NCAA West Regional in Billings, Montana to determine if they will be advancing to the national level of competition. They are currently unsure of the conditions and whether or not the early November snow will be a factor. Regardless, the expectations and the pressure will be high. At least sixth place is required in order to clinch a trip to Nationals.
“They deserve everything they’re getting because they work really, really hard for it,” said coach Arvin. “Nothing’s been given to them. They’re a special group. They’re young. We’re excited about [being successful] now and hopefully the future for the next couple years, but we have to keep them always healthy.”