The women’s cross country team at Rocky Mountain College certainly hasn’t spent the first six years of its existence just running in circles.
Coach Alan King’s Battlin’ Bears have steadily improved over the years to reach the point this season where they’re solidly in contention to make their first team appearance at the NAIA national championships next month in Vancouver, Wash.
“I've already got it crossed off on my calendar,” junior Megan Breeding said. “We're going."
While there’s reason for optimism, there's also some challenging races ahead, including a rare home appearance Saturday morning at the Yellowjacket Invitational at Riverfront Park.
The 18-member Rocky team, however, has already distinguished itself this fall with the highest national ranking in school history and some of the program's quickest times.
"It's just fun being with these girls,” King said. “Megan was telling us a couple of weeks ago that she remembers when we beat a team for the first time. It was just exciting to beat 'a' team.
“Now we're 14th in the country, and it's pretty exciting times."
Rocky, which hasn't competed the past three weekends and slipped to 15th in this week's poll, is sporting a roster that includes three runners — junior Ana Richter of Billings and sophomores Mackenzie O’Dore of Joliet and Rachael Hart of Kalispell — who have qualified for nationals in the past as individuals.
The Bears' blend of talent also includes seasoned performers in Breeding, who is from Kimberly, Idaho, and senior Teri McCormick of Hardin, along with rising stars in freshmen Selene Johnson of Big Timber and Autumn Charges Strong from Crow Agency.
“We have the potential. It's in us,” Breeding said of reaching nationals as a team. “Each week we have gotten better, so there's no way we can be stopped now unless a wall gets in front us. If that happens, we'll probably climb over it."
All seven of the women already rank in the program’s top 10 for fastest times.
“Every single week they've gotten faster,” King said. “I mean, it’s just amazing what they're doing."
The top Rocky women have been running times between 18:30 and 19:30 for 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) — and are looking ahead to even faster clockings on the flat Riverfront Park course.
"They just work well together,” King said. “They trade spots. We've had different number ones, different number twos and different number threes, all the way down the line. Any one of these girls could be our top runner on any given weekend."
While it is a close-knit team, “we push each other really hard, too,” Breeding said of the races and practices.
“That’s something we haven't had in the past," King said. “We've had one or two girls out front and kind of by themselves.”
In putting together one of their strongest races, Rocky’s women placed fifth out of 16 teams during last month’s Erik Anderson Invitational in Spokane, Wash.
“Our strength definitely is our pack,” King said. “Every single race we've gone to we have less than a minute between our top five or six girls, which is huge."
At Spokane, the Bears beat much larger schools in Gonzaga University and Washington State, while also coming within eight points of NAIA rival and powerhouse Lewis-Clark State of Idaho.
"We finished .377 seconds behind Lewis-Clark, who was ranked ninth at the time in the country,” King said. “We had one girl running with the flu and another one running with a stress fracture. So if we get everybody healthy, we'll be really exciting to watch."
After Saturday, where Rocky will face tough competition from the likes of Black Hills State, S.D., and host Montana State Billings, the Bears will take another break before competing at the Frontier Conference championships Nov. 3 in Helena.
Host Carroll College, ranked sixth nationally, and L-C State, currently ranked 11th, will also be vying for the conference’s one automatic team berth to nationals, which will be held on Nov. 17.
“Any one of us could win the conference,” King said. “It's going to be a dogfight.”
Besides the automatic invitations given to conference champions across the country, the NAIA fills the rest of its team spots for nationals based on the Top 25 rankings.
“Last year, the final at-large team to get in was number 19,” King said. “It looks like we're sitting pretty good, but you just don't want to leave that to chance.”
Already, though, the national attention has brought the Rocky team more notice around campus, provided the Bears with motivation in races and workouts and sparked interest from possible recruits.
"I've got 105 recruits (men and women) looking at Rocky already,” King said.
“I don’t think about (the ranking) that much, but it is really exciting to see how much the program has grown and how much better we are,” Richter said. “To actually be in that spot, it's lucky and amazing and we've worked really hard to get there.”
“I don't think it's lucky ...we've put in a lot of work,” a laughing Hart added. “It feels awesome just to be where we are."
And that upbeat feeling, along with their individual performances, is helping Rocky believe it's on the right course to nationals.
“It's realistic now,” Breeding said of the team’s objective. “Before it was almost a fantasy."