Sophomore slump not a problem for Stevens

Zach Smart

For the Quinnipiac women’s cross-country program, it’s become a daily regimen. Starting early in the afternoon, on the outside of the old, creaky Burt Kahn basketball court, a scattered core of runners fill the hallway. After a crucial stretching routine, the scene changes. The cluster of runners roll out to the center of campus, forming the pack that has helped make the Bobcats such a unique threat to every team on the eastern seaboard this fall.

Mid-way through the brisk workout, the inevitable emerges. Kristin Stevens establishes a comfortable lead on her teammates before breaking free from the pack. She then escapes, darting off into the distance. Like an elementary school child chasing an ice cream truck, Stevens is out.

The lead that began an arm’s length away from teammate Lindsey Pierret soon becomes insurmountable. After blazing a route around campus and through Sleeping Giant State Park, Stevens surfaces from the set, en route to sprinting out the straight-aways as another practice concludes.

It’s a scenario that typifies the success of a program that’s currently ranked seventh in the New England Collegiate Cross Country Poll. “We definitely have some friendly competition on our team,” said Stevens, the reigning 2006 Northeast Conference individual champion.

The second-year standout hasn’t missed a beat from last season, despite suffering a stress fracture that limited her summer and early fall training.

“Being competitive with one another, it forces us to run faster and it’s definitely a good benefit to our team, I mean look what we’ve done so far.”

Look at what Stevens has done so far.

The rangy sophomore coasted to a first-place finish at the Quinnipiac invitational on Sept. 21 and finished second at the Ted Owen invitational.

On Saturday, Stevens once again led the Bobcats to a first place finish, this time at the New England Cross Country Championships. Stevens finished with a time of 17:54, good for second overall.

The 44-team field included Amherst College, who is currently the top ranked women’s cross country team in the nation.

However, Stevens sits on a bench outside Burt Kahn Court and says little about herself, her individual accolades and her personal aspirations for 2007. When asked about the team as a functional cross-country unit, her tone suddenly changes.

She says she’s never been on such a close-knit team that’s become a surrogate family to her. Never.

Not even while helping lead New Jersey perennial powerhouse Roxbury High to back-to-back state titles, as she did during her junior and senior years.

Back then, Stevens played second-fiddle to North Carolina State’s Jennifer Ennis. The two grew up together in Succasunna, N.J., in the heart of Morris County, and have been best friends ever since. Stevens, a heavily pursued product on the recruiting market, could have taken the same route as Ennis, committing early to an ACC or Big East program.

She ended up choosing Quinnipiac over UConn for its ultra-competitive physical therapy department.

Head coach Shawn Green has already pegged Stevens as one of the best long distance runners in the program’s rich history. Green says Stevens’ instant impact at the Division-I tier is unprecedented.

“We’ve never had a runner as fast as Kristen at this point in her career,” Green said. “She has finished higher than any other athletes at this point. She’s handled the responsibility of being the team’s top runner.”

As Quinnipiac’s only recruit other than legendary All-American Katie Gwyther (Class of ’06) to run a sub-five mile, Stevens arrived on campus with hyperbolic lure circling her name.

“I was anxious coming into the first meet,” said Stevens , referring to the 2006 Quinnipiac Invitational.

Stevens had missed the first two races prior to this, nursing an ankle injury that occured during pre-season training. Butterflies swarmed her stomach as she approached the starting line and waited for the official to fire his pistol.

Stevens might have fended off those waves of anxiety after taking a powerful lead 200-meters into the race, one that she wouldn’t come close to relinquishing. As a callow freshman, Stevens cruised to a first-place finish in front of a home crowd.

Since then, she’s filled the leadership void left by Gwyther. In just her second season, Stevens is constantly drawing comparisons to Gwyther, a friend and mentor who helped sell her on Quinnipiac.

“Katie is such a great role model,” Stevens said. “If I could accomplish anything she’s accomplished, I’d just be so happy. I saw how she came into her career and how she left. It’d be an honor to be mentioned (alongside Gwyther).”

Stevens must stay healthy for this to happen.

Injuries have played a substantial role in slowing her progression on the winter and spring track circuit. The stress fracture hampered her to the point where she couldn’t compete in one meet during the spring season.

She believes cross-training workouts will keep her healthy.

In high school, Stevens anchored a 4×100 relay team that captured the national championship. She’s hoping to make a robust impact in the mid-long distance events this year, just as she’s done with cross-country. Both Stevens and Green can agree that injuries were the only aspect that held her back last year.

In Green’s office, a well-decorated shelf of hardware makes its presence felt. Glistening ornaments are showcased-trophies, plaques, glass cups, and batons of blue luster which represent NCAA championship appearances.

Sitting below the shelf is a certificate that dwarfs all of the above. It reads: “Kathryn Gwyther: All-American.”

When the 2007 cross-country campaign concludes, Green could be in need more office wall space.