VERONA, Wis. — As a warning gun cracked through the frigid air here at the NCAA cross country championships on Saturday, signaling 10 minutes before start, University of Colorado senior Dani Jones paused amid the chaos of race preparation and pulled together her six teammates for a message.
"No one deserves this more than us," Jones told them, an inch of fresh snow blanketing the course. "We've been so consistent, we've prepared so well. Let's go out and do this thing and show people what we're made of."
It was a message that resonated. In all but one of the cross country seasons in Jones' career, CU entered the NCAA championships favored to win in the coaches poll, only to fall short: Second in 2015, third in 2016 and 2017.
When the gun finally went off, the Buffaloes, led by Jones, stacked runners in the lead group and maintained their position. With half a mile to go in the 6-kilometer race, Jones sat in in fourth place, then heard coach Mark Wetmore call out: "The team looks good!"
It was the boost she needed.
Jones powered past New Mexico sophomore Weini Kelati, using the speed that has won her two NCAA track titles, to win CU's first individual cross country title since 2000 in 19 minutes, 42.8 seconds. Her teammates followed in quick succession: senior Makena Morley in eighth, junior Tabor Scholl in 15th, junior Sage Hurta in 22nd, and Taylor Tuttle in 24th — a staggering six top-30 finishers that earned each of them All-American status.
"That whole last stretch — I just felt four years flashing by," Jones said. "It took my breath away. I'll never forget it."
By the strength of that pack, Colorado won their third NCAA team title in school history — its first since 2004 — with 65 points, besting New Mexico's 103. The last time Colorado won an individual and team title in the same year was 2000, when Kara Goucher (née Grgas-Wheeler) led the Buffs to victory. Even in a program like CU's, with historically talented teams, the 2018 women's squad will go down as one of the most accomplished in school history.
"I'm as happy as I could be," longtime coach Mark Wetmore told The Denver Post afterward. "They did everything right. Dani was beautiful. Behind her they were perfect. Not a bad step the whole way. They knew what they were doing, and I was proud of them."
"I was thinking, if they were up high early, we're going to be fine," Wetmore said. "From 2K on, I was confident."
Jones didn't hesitate when asked whether the team or individual title meant more.
"The team title, 100 percent," she said. "... If I was last place and the team won the title, I would be just as happy as I am right now."
Jones, now with three NCAA titles, will go down as one of the legendary athletes in Colorado history — alongside Goucher, Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson, all of whom eventually became Olympians. And she still has two years of outdoor track eligibility remaining.
"She's one of the best 1500 meter runners in college," Wetmore said. "If they're with her, she's with them. With 500 to go, the odds start swinging in her favor."
With a snow-coated course, the Buffs put in the largest spikes they could fit into their racing shoes, ready to perform in conditions they felt more than prepared for given their home training grounds in Boulder.
"Before the race, (the coaches) said be careful because of the snow," Morley said. "But at 4K, just start going. Whatever you need to do to be able to move at 4K."
The team's performance was the most dominant since New Mexico scored 49 points in 2015. The last team before that to score fewer points was the 2004 Colorado team, which tallied 63. During the last 10 years, the average winner has scored 105 points to win.
"Every team's different," Wetmore said. "Every race is different, but this is a special team for sure. ... Every one of them ran better than I could have hoped for."
NCAA cross country championships
Women's Team Standings — 1. Colorado 65; 2. New Mexico 103; 3. Oregon 160; 4. Michigan 213; 5. Stanford 232; 6. Boise State 288; 7. BYU 310; 8. Notre Dame 313; 9. Washington 321; 10. Wisconsin 325; 11. Michigan State 341; 12. Portland 344; 13. NC State 367; 14. Arkansas 398; 15. Iowa State 403; 16. Florida 455; 17. Indiana 455; 18. Columbia 468; 19. Oklahoma State 481; 20. Penn State 482; 21. Princeton 488; 22. Ole Miss 509; 23. Furman 527; 24. Villanova 547; 25. Southern Utah 564; 26. Florida State 584; 27. Oregon State 600; 28. Georgia Tech 653; 29. Minnesota 673; 30. Dartmouth 751; 31. Texas 862.
Women's Individual 6-Kilometer Leaders (253 finishers) — 1. Dani Jones, CU, 19:42.8; 2. Weini Kelati, UNM, 19:45. 3; 3. Jessica Hull, UO, 19:50.4; 4. Alicia Monson, Wis., 19:55.2; 5. Ednuh Kurgat, UNM, 19:55.8; 6. Allie Ostrander, BSU, 19:56.9; 7. Erica Birk, BYU, 19:58.1; 8. Makena Morley, 20:00.1; 9. Charlotte Prouse, UNM, 20:02.1; 10. Anna Rohrer, ND, 10:02.4.
CU finishers: 15. Tabor Scholl, 29:09.9; 22. Sage Hurta, 20:20.4; 24. Tayler Tuttle, 20:23.4; 30. Val Constien, 20:31.3; 80. Holly Bent, 20:57.2.