HPU Women’s Cross Country Wins Gardner-Webb Invitational

• The event victory was HPU’s first since capturing the Big South Championship title in 2011
• The Panthers took four of the top-10 spots at the event
• Freshman Kelly Hayes led the team with a sixth-place finish (19:29.18) in her HPU debut

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – The High Point University women’s cross country team grabbed four of the top-10 positions at the Gardner-Webb Invitational Saturday to open the 2014 campaign with its first event victory in three seasons.

HPU won the Big South preview event with a meet-low score of 41, while Coastal Carolina (50) and Liberty (67) rounded out the top-3. Campbell (106) and Radford (155) earned the fourth and fifth spots, while Winthrop (6th, 160), UNC-Asheville (7th, 170) and Charleston Southern (8th, 203) followed. Gardner-Webb (246) and Presbyterian College (252) rounded out the top-10.

“I loved what I saw from the girls today,” head coach Jenna Wrieden said. “We met our objective of going out and winning the meet, which is big. It’s really nice to start off with a win and carry that momentum through the whole season. For us, it’s really important to show we can do this and beat every team in the conference. It’s really motivating and encouraging for the whole team.”

The meet win was HPU’s first since capturing the Big South Championship in 2011. The Panthers also won the Big South preview event that season en route to winning the league title.

Freshman Kelly Hayes led HPU with a sixth-place finish in an impressive debut for the Pearl River, N.Y., native. Hayes crossed the finish line in a time of 19:29.18.

“I loved the way Kelly raced. I think she was very ambitious and immediately went out with the top runner in the conference [Letitia Saayman],” Wrieden said. “Although she couldn’t hang with her the whole time, Kelly established herself as going for it and as one of the better runners in the conference. Now she has seven weeks to tweak some things and get better every week.”

The next three spots all belonged to Panthers, as HPU also took the seventh, eighth and ninth positions. After missing the 2013 season due to injury, senior Leah Anne Wirfel returned with a purpose to place seventh in a time of 19:37.85. It marked her top cross country finish (by position) in an HPU uniform.

Junior Katie Farina earned an eighth-place finish (19:41.46) for the Panthers while sophomore Cozette Collin placed ninth in 19:44.26.

“This is the best one-to-five spread we’ve had since I’ve been here, with only a 15-second difference,” Wrieden said. “That’s how you win meets, really focusing on running together and working together.”

Senior Krista Willard finished just outside the top-10 in 11th (19:55.46), while sophomore Natalia Ocasio (19th, 20:17.12) and junior Julia Zautcke (20th, 20:20.26) also garnered top-20 finishes to round out the top-7 for HPU.

Junior Sarah Bode finished 27th in 20:31.63, while fellow junior Lindsey Siska was 34th in 20:52.97. Junior Erika Peoples (39th, 21:07.48), senior Lauren Blackwell (43rd, 21:19.05) and senior Sarah Dorrell (48th, 21:26.12) wrapped up the event for the Panthers.

“The best part about all of this is I think we can make a lot of big improvements in seven weeks,” Wrieden said. “I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season.”

HPU returns to action at a pair of events on Friday, Sept. 26. The Panthers will send their top-7 runners to the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational in Earlysville, Va., while a pod of student-athletes also will race at the UNCG Spartan Invitational in Kernersville, N.C.