By George Tatoris
Far away from the cross country team’s usual stomping ground, clouds lingered and winds slashed temperatures down to a crisp 40 degrees in Louisville, Ky., as sophomore Natalie Cooper crossed the finish line without her team by her side for the first time in the 2016 cross country season.
Cooper was the only Lion of the women’s team to qualify for the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championship, hosted in Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park on Saturday, Nov. 19. The entirety of the men’s team was also there, having earned an at-large bid after a third-place Regionals finish.
Cooper finished 47th with a time of 21:29. It was her last runaway success in a season full of them. Even her older teammates are starting to look up to her.
“Last year Natalie did not race at the NCAA Regional meet and this year she finished 47th in the nation,” said junior Allison Fournier, one of Cooper’s teammates. “She is an inspiration to me.”
The week before she placed sixth in the Atlantic Regionals, and the week before that she won the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) title. Getting to nationals came as a surprise to the sophomore.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Cooper said.
Assistant coach Michael Walker was more surprised by the time frame in which she got to nationals.
“I could see it happening later on as a senior, so this is ahead of schedule from what I thought was possible,” Walker said.
Cooper previously played soccer, but did not enjoy it, so her mother suggested she try cross country. The new sport resonated with her.
Unfortunately, during junior and senior year of high school, fractures and shin problems prevented her from running.
Upon graduation, she chose to attend the College because her brother graduated from there, and if she wanted to continue to run, the cross country program was there, ready and waiting.
When she first became a Lion, Walker and head coach Justin Lindsey noticed there was more to her skill than what laid on the surface. They knew right away she had not met her full potential in high school.
“The first thing (Walker and I) noticed is she manages pacing with a rhythm that showed she would be able to push the training intensity and not break down as quickly as others,” Lindsey said.
Cooper was just thrilled to return to her favorite sport.
“My mindset was just happy to be running again,” she said.
Over the course of her rookie season, Cooper’s time in the 6000-meter decreased with each race. Forty seconds were cut between her first and second 6K, then 40 more and then nine more. For her final race of the season, the NJAC Championship, Cooper crossed the finish line at 22:46, ending her season with a new personal record (PR) exactly two minutes faster than her first 6K of the season.
“We were careful about her training last year as a frosh, and it took her a while to build up endurance in order to practice and compete at a high level,” Walker said.
Fournier took notice of her success early on.
“Without being able to run higher mileage last year, she still ran very well,” Fournier said. “I couldn’t wait to see how much faster she would race with more training.”
Over the course of the season, Cooper also became friends with her teammates. She always looked forward spending time with them at practice.
“Practice is one of the most fun parts of my day,” Cooper said.
Walker believes the team’s relationship is key to their success.
“All the women work well together and bonded in a way that allows them to think big,” Walker said. “(Cooper) has great potential at the national level, and I think the team will follow and be part of that overall success in the next few years.”
Back in Kentucky, Cooper was alone. As she watched the men’s team savor their hard-fought success, she could not help but think of her team back home. Starting the season, the goal was to get to Louisville as a team. Cooper picked up her phone and sent a text to a friend back in Jersey.
Between seasons, Cooper increased her mileage. Competing as a distance runner in indoor track and field, Cooper ran a PR of 11:02 in the 3000-meter and 19:11 in the 5000 meter. In outdoor track she ran a PR of 17:56 in the 5000-meter event. Cooper continued to run over the summer, as well.
Returning for the 2016 cross country season, Cooper beat her PR in the 6K by more than 20 seconds. By the Atlantic Regionals in November, her time was 21:03. One week later, she was on her way to nationals. To Cooper, it seemed things were “starting to come together in a real way” after her legs caused her so much trouble in high school.
Lindsey owed the success partially to Cooper’s mental fortitude.
“She doesn’t get intimidated easily and she focuses on herself and how well she can execute her race plan,” Lindsey said.
Cooper said her success came from the training. Walker devised a training regiment for her that helped her progress without taking time off, according to Lindsey. Walker believes strongly in finishing the last one and a half miles of a race with finesse, so much of the training was geared towards achieving this. Having a plan on race day, according to Lindsey, is “paramount” in cross country.
Cooper’s a bility to accommodate her new training leaves Lindsey optimistic.
“My hope is she becomes a mainstay at the national level and ultimately contend for a national title,” Lindsey said.
In New Jersey, Allison Fournier received a text message from friend and teammate Natalie Cooper.
“Al,” the text read. “Next year we are going to Nationals. It’s going to happen.”