Women’s Cross Country National Championship was a Memorable Journey… in Some Unexpected Ways

Gallery: Images of the 2005 Cross Country National Champions

By Brian Bennett

Former Geneseo women's cross country head coach Mike Woods ’69 remembers that he tried to make all the perfect arrangements for the trip to the 2005 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championship. Arrive early at the site of the meet in Ohio, get his squad settled in, have his runners get a good look at the course—everything he felt necessary to give his women’s team its best chance.

“I went in thinking we had a strong opportunity to win,” said the external-optimist Woods, who retired after the 2014 season and was recently inducted in the Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame. “But after all we went through in getting out there, to be honest, I though our chances were shot.”

While the season-long journey toward a national championship is a story of its own, it was the actual trip to the meet that remains perhaps the main topic of conversation whenever members of the team gather and reminisce.

A series of impossible-to-anticipate events, primarily involving a freak lake-effect snowstorm, cost the squad (as well as the men’s team, which was also competing) a full day’s delay. What should have been a six-hour bus ride became a two-day odyssey that left members cold, tired and in some cases, shaken.

Yet the team overcame those unexpected hurdles and on Nov. 19, 2005, claimed Geneseo’s sole team NCAA Champion to date. The accomplishment comes to mind as the 10th anniversary of the occasion nears, at the same time the men’s and women’s teams attempt to qualify for yet another shot at a national title, while hosting the NCAA Atlantic Regional qualifier on Saturday, Nov. 14.

Helping Build the Tradition
Started in 1967 (men’s) and 1980 (women’s), both cross country teams have claimed milestones in the school’s athletic history, including the 1972 men’s team, which was the first Geneseo squad in any sport to qualify for a NCAA Championship. The 2005 women’s team was at the outset of what has become the Knights’ legacy of success in cross country.

Woods took over both programs in 1992 and on the women’s side, he had to first break the stranglehold of Cortland, which captured 15-straight SUNYAC Championships between 1984-98 (the Knights had eight second-place finishes during those years). Geneseo responded with its first women’s SUNYAC crown in 2000, starting their own run of dominance: 14 of 15 championships in the 2000s.

The program had also started consistently qualifying for the NCAA Championship. Its first appearance was in 1990 and had a four-season run of participation from 1993 through 1996, with a pair of top-ten finishes. In 1999 the squad started its current run of 16-straight appearances.

Heading into the 2005 season, the expectation of success had become established, with the team coming off five straight SUNYAC Championships and NCAA appearances, earned through its finish at the Atlantic Region qualifier. Yet the team had yet to seriously challenge at the national meet, with an eighth-place finish in 2000 being the only time in those five seasons the Knights finished in the top 10. But pre-season talk in summer of 2005 focused on higher goals—in his season preview, Sports Information Director George Gagnier ’88 predicted that the team could “perhaps even contend” for a national title.

The Knights were returning all but one runner from the previous year's team that had swept the SUNYAC, New York State Collegiate Track Conference (NYSCTC) and Atlantic Regional Qualifier. Senior Renee Catalano was the leading veteran, claiming the SUNYAC and NYSCTC individual championships the year before. She was Geneseo’s highest individual finisher in the 2004 NCAAs, crossing the line 64th. Catalano had an interesting athletic background: she was a member of the Knights’ soccer team before switching over to track and then cross country.

“I had seen Renee out on our track running intervals, so I went up and introduced myself,” remembered Woods. “I could tell she was a great athlete and had some track experience so I asked her, ‘Why aren’t you running here at Geneseo?’ She said she didn’t think she was good enough. I talked her into coming out in the spring for track.”

Catalano had competed in track in high school and certainly not at distance, running the 400 hurdles and 800. She did it mainly as conditioning for soccer, which was her main passion growing up and her primary factor in choosing a college. Yet in this case, meeting Woods was a case of perfect timing.

“I wasn’t getting the enjoyment out of soccer that I used to. I started running to try to find a new challenge and found solace in long runs,” said Catalano. “I ended up wanting to compete in a marathon and asked Woodsie for advice. He gave me this really crazy training program, but I loved it.”

Catalano joined the track team and quickly found a high level of support from her new teammates.

“When I ran track, the members of the team who were also cross country runners worked hard to recruit me. They told me that cross country had an even stronger team aspect to it, in both training and competing. Finding people who had the same mindset was really important to me—it transitioned my entire college experience.”

In the spring of 2004, Catalano earned All-America status in the outdoor 10,000 meters with an eighth-place finish. Another track All-American running cross country for the Knights for the 2005 season was senior Marta Scott. She earned that honor in 2004 at the NCAA indoor meet, finishing seventh in the 1,500. Five other returning runners competed in the 2004 national cross country meet: senior Fran Magri, junior Christy Finke and sophomores Meghan Nolan, Kristin Wayman and Karen Merrill. Even more depth was available on the squad: seniors Sally Briggs and Carrie Gregory ran at the NCAA meet in 2003.

There were others with the potential to break into the top seven, including first-years Liz Montgomery, Christiana Martin and Laura Iafrati and there were hopes that junior Shannon Griggs would be able to overcome the multiple injuries that had hampered her first two seasons.

“I knew that Liz could be very good,” said Woods. “I saw great potential from Christiana, but she had been a Rotary Exchange student her last year of high school and spent a year in France. She ran, but really didn’t do any workouts or formal training.”

Griggs was another athlete with a high upside, but Woods counted on her “with reservations.”

“Shannon was a heck of a runner in high school, but so injury prone—she seemed to go from one injury to the next,” detailed Woods. “Her first two seasons we couldn’t get her healthy enough to train on a consistent basis— there were several weeks she didn’t run at all.”

An Unblemished Regular Season
The first national poll of the season ranked Geneseo eighth and tops among Atlantic Region teams. The team started out strong by capturing the Buffalo State Invitational on Sept. 3, edging Edinboro and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, squads that would both qualify for that season’s Division II Championship. Catalano (fourth), Scott (sixth) and Montgomery (eighth) all finished in the top 10.

Montgomery began establishing herself as a consistent presence at the head of the field with her next performance at the Sept. 10 Oswego Invitational. She finished second, with Scott (third), Catalano (fourth) and Merrill (sixth) all in the top 10. The Knights captured the team title by a comfortable 26-57 margin over nationally-ranked Ithaca, a top rival in the Atlantic Region.

Woods rested most of his top runners the next week, but still handily captured the Fredonia Invitational. The team had the top four and eight of the top 10 with Merrill taking the individual title.

The depth of the squad was displayed at the Geneseo Invitational (Oct. 1), where the Knights finished in positions four through 11 to take the meet. Montgomery was again the top Geneseo finisher but two new names appeared among the listing of the Knights’ top finishers. Martin finished seventh overall, while Griggs showed what she could do when injury free by finishing eighth.

Woods recalls that he and Martin hit it off really well and that helped her rapid improvement. “She was our sixth or seventh runner early on, but I saw great things and potential from her,” said Woods.  “She was very, very competitive.”

Martin, who hadn’t raced during her year in Europe, remembers that she started the year with modest expectations.

“My goal was to be able to run for the cross country team at the beginning of the 2005 season, she said. “Suddenly, not only was I running for the team, but I was scoring as a freshman.”

One specific memory from the Geneseo meet for Woods was how down Montgomery was when she didn’t finish at the top.

“She had made a major-league step up in the season while learning how to compete at the collegiate level,” said Woods. “So she was pretty disappointed at the Genny Invite for finishing fourth. I told her, 'you ran a great time, you’re a first-year competitor and you finished behind some great runners.'”

It was not only Woods that helped Montgomery keep her perspective. Scott, the team captain, had taken notice of the first-year runner.

“I give Marta all the credit in the world for taking Liz under her wing,” stated Woods. “Liz could get down pretty easy but Marta helped build her up. Marta was a fantastic captain— she had a way of knowing if someone needed a pep talk.”

The next meet was the Ohio Wesleyan Invitational, run at Dornoch Golf Club on the course that would host that year’s NCAA meet. It was after this meet that Woods felt strongly that his team was a national contender.

“Our runners were scared of that course,” said Woods bluntly. “That was probably the hardest course we had ever run at a national meet and probably still the toughest. Lots of elevation changes, including a big steep hill. You should have heard the complaining.”

Knowing that his team needed to change its collective mindset about the course, both for that meet and with the NCAAs firmly in mind, Woods set about “demystifying” the course.

“I told them: ‘Living and running in Geneseo is hill work. Hills should not bother you.’ We went out and destroyed that course,” said Woods.

The Knights captured the invite and had six runners in top 10 and nine in the top 20, led by Montgomery (first) Catalano (third), Griggs (fourth), Scott (sixth), Martin (eighth) and Merrill (ninth).

Merrill agreed with Woods on the importance of the Ohio meet. “The Ohio Wesleyan Invite was definitely key,” she recalled. “It was a great opportunity to see the course ahead of time and really be able to visualize what Nationals were going to be like. We didn't like the course very much because of the hills, but running on the Geneseo campus prepared us well. We ran very well at that meet which definitely boosted our confidence.”

Back on familiar ground after the Ohio trip, Montgomery kept up her winning ways, while Griggs continued her impressive rise with a second-place finish at the Yellowjacket Invitational at Rochester’s Genesee Valley Park on Oct. 15. Montgomery captured the race by 40 seconds, with Griggs, Finke, Merrill and Martin the next five across the finish line for the winning Geneseo squad.

Dominance Continues in the Post-Season
The Knights were earning attention for their dominance, with the latest national polls placing them second, behind only defending NCAA champion Williams. Geneseo lived up to its ranking with an overwhelming performance at the Oct. 22 SUNYAC Championships in Plattsburgh, topping runner-up Brockport 19-83. Montgomery captured the individual championship, with six of her teammates joining her in the top 10: Griggs (third), Scott (fourth), Catalano (fifth), Merrill (sixth), Martin (eighth) and Finke (ninth).

Montgomery, Griggs, Scott, Catalano and Merrill were all named first-team All-SUNYAC for their top-seven finishes, with Martin, Finke, Iafrati and Nolan earning second-team honors for their finishes in the top 15. Montgomery, Griggs, Finke and Merrill earned spots in SUNYAC Cross Country Hall of Fame. Woods was named SUNYAC Coach of the Year for both the women and the men, the latter also having captured the conference title.

The NYSCTC Championship on Nov. 5 at Hamilton College featured a field that included some of Geneseo’s expected competition at the Atlantic Regional qualifier the following week. The Knights finished with 21 points to runner-up Ithaca’s 60. Griggs captured the individual championship by 1.1 seconds over Montgomery in second, with Scott (third), Martin (seventh), Catalano (eighth), and Finke (ninth) all finishing in the top 10.

It was a similar result at the Atlantic Regional on Nov. 12 at Genesee Valley park, with the Knights again outpacing Ithaca 22-80. Montgomery (second), Griggs (third), Catalano (fourth), Scott (sixth), and Martin (seventh) were again present among the top finishers. It was Geneseo’s ninth victory in nine meets and qualified the team for the NCAA Championship the next weekend.

The Knights would come into the national meet as one of the favorites, as the last poll of the season ranked them at the top. They had been behind Williams all season, but edged ahead of the Ephs by the narrowest of margins, 236-235, with each team splitting the eight first-place votes. Williams had also taken the NCAA crown in 2002 and, with fellow conference member Middlebury winning in 2000, 2001 and 2003, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) had dominated the meet by claiming the last five titles.

The Trip from... Geneseo
There had been few bumps in the road for the Knights during the season, but the combination of events on the trip to Ohio made up for the relative ease. Leaving on Wednesday after classes, the team bus traveled west on I-90, stopping in Erie, Pennsylvania for dinner. One of the team members came up to Woods and reported some strange smells coming from the brakes. The driver inspected the vehicle while the team ate and reported that he would have to go back to Fredonia and get a new bus. It necessitated an overnight stay in Erie.

“For some reason—I still don’t know why—everything was booked up in Erie that night. We ended up in a place downtown that wasn’t exactly in the nicest area,” remembered Woods. “I told the girls not to open their door unless they knew who it was.”

The team got on the replacement bus the next morning and resumed the journey. Almost everyone on the bus except for Woods was sleeping, so he and the driver were the only witnesses to the thickening snowfall, courtesy of an unusual (for November) lake-snow event.

“It was coming down pretty heavy and visibility got pretty poor. All of sudden the car in front of the bus comes to a complete stop,” recounted Woods. “Our driver, Bob, steered the bus into the median to avoid running into the car. There was a big accident in front of us, with other vehicles off the road as well.

“We were heading right for another car that had spun around and was facing us-I could see the driver’s eyes. Bob somehow steered us past the car, but now there was an overturned tractor-trailer in front of us. There was furniture all over the ground that had spilled out, but we stopped about 50-60 feet short of the truck. Nobody was hurt and most of the students were still sleeping.”

The multi-vehicle accident, caused by to the poor visibility and conditions, necessitated a helicopter flight for a person who was critically-injured. There was ultimately a fatality from the accident, the news of which was upsetting to the team.

It took about four hours for a tow truck to arrive and pull the bus, which wasn’t damaged, back on the road. It was still snowing and travel remained slow, so Woods and the driver decided to leave the I-90 and look for an alternative route to Delaware, which was located almost in the middle of the state, just north of Columbus.

“We got about 10-15 miles south and there was no snow, in the air or on the ground. We drove past people out enjoying the day on a golf course,” stated Woods.

The delay made it impossible for the bus to make it to Delaware before sundown, so in mid-afternoon, in some small town whose name is lost to memory, Woods directed the driver into a housing tract. In now pleasant conditions, the men’s and women’s team went out for a run, with people in the neighborhood “looking at us kind of strangely,” he said.

It wasn’t until Friday that the team could get its walk-through on the course. Still, the decision to leave on Wednesday helped lessen the impact of the lost time, plus the previous trip to Ohio meant the team was familiar with the course.

“The events leading up to race day with the travel delays were definitely worrisome,” said Merrill. “I can't imagine what Woodsie was thinking or going through. He was really able to hold us together and keep us in a positive mindset. Despite the travel delays, we still had Friday to review the course and get ready for Saturday. Not ideal, but still enough time. We were all a little anxious to get there, but once we were there on Friday we were able to relax and focus.”

Catalano remembered that to her, it was just one of many road trips and the unusual circumstances were “just part of the adventure, part of the ride.”

The Last Hill to Climb
The mindset of the team on Saturday morning was similar to how they approached every meet that season.

“The expectations I remember from Coach Woods and from ourselves was to just run as hard as we could and to never stop believing in our team,” shared Montgomery. “I didn't feel so much like an expectation we had but just this feeling like, ‘here is this crazy opportunity so let's just really encourage each other to go for it.’ I remember running over the course that morning with Renne and Christiana and we said, ‘when we get to this last (big!) hill, promise to think of each other and push even harder!’”

A lasting memory for Merrill (besides the fact that it was in the 60s and sunny with no sign of snow that day) was the large number of Geneseo supporters, mainly cross country and track and field teammates, who were lining the course.

“They traveled on their own in a a big caravan! The year before, a group of 10 or so rented an RV and drove out to Wisconsin for the meet,” said Merrill. “In 2005, it seemed like the entire team drove out. The cheering section was unbelievable. We always talk about how the team is a family and that really proved it.”

For Catalano, a different detail comes to mind from the morning of the race. “We got these brand-new white uniforms for the race that gave me a special feeling. We went into the race with the attitude of ‘shoot for the sky,’ that was always the goal. We felt we could win, because that’s what we had been training for.”

Woods prepared his runners, taking extra time with Martin, he remembers, stressing the need for her to pace herself due to her habit of going out too fast.

“I gave her a 10-minute talk before the race and at the first mile she was about 10th,” laughs Woods. “Definitely not the plan. I was worried she’d fade, but she didn’t and ended up running a strong race.”

Montgomery recalls that, because she was so focused on the team goal and had no idea what to expect in her first national meet, she didn’t have an individual expectation for the race. Still, she was the Knights first runner across the line, in third place at 22:00.9, just 8.8 second behind the individual champion. Scott, who Woods labeled his steadiest runner that season, came in 24th at 22:50.0, with Griggs not far behind her at 22:55.7, good for 30th place. Their finishes earned them All-America honors.

Williams, however, had its first three runners come in at sixth, 14th and 17th, and when their fourth runner finished 28th, the Ephs had a considerable early margin.

However Catalano (48th in 23:15.0) and Martin (56th, 23:20.2) finished well ahead of Williams’ fifth competitor. The Knights' depth proved to be the decisive factor, with Finke (93rd, 23:54.4) and Merrill (117th, 24:12.6), despite their finishes not counting toward the team score, also beating their Eph counterparts. Geneseo’s five scoring runners topped Williams quintet, 88-107.

“I remember there being a lot of anticipation after the race,” said Merrill. “We didn't know if we had won, we knew it was going to be close. It was an amazing day—we all really believed we could win and went out there and did what we had been working towards for so many months. And having so many teammates out there to celebrate was really the best part.”

A unexpected surprise was awaiting the team when they arrived back in Geneseo around midnight on Saturday evening.

“When we got back to Alumni Circle, the rest of the team, plus other teams (men's soccer, swim teams, etc.) were there to congratulate us,” remembered Merrill. “I know this meant a lot to us— having support from not just our own teammates, but other teams as well.”

Reflections, A Decade Later
The opportunity to reminisce about this special season brought fond memories to team members, along with the expected “can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”

For Montgomery, who went on to two more All-America finishes in subsequent NCAA meets, “My memories from the championship and the whole season are always about how well that team supported each other, and how much fun we had every day!”

Catalano remembers that the feeling of support was generated through the leadership style of Woods, whose job with the team was recognized by being selected as National Cross Country Coach of the Year.

“He is a compelling person and great at helping people believe in themselves. He helped challenge me and inspired us to challenge each other. It was an incredible family feeling and it was driven by his ability to make people come together and support each other,” she said. “You just never wanted to disappoint him.”

Martin agreed: “One of my greatest memories from that experience is the feeling of making Woodsie proud.”

Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff. Special thanks to George Gagnier and Chris Popovici for their assistance, as well as to Mike Woods, Renee Catalano, Christiana Martin, Liz Montgomery and Karen Merrill for sharing their photos and memories.