Cross CountrySports

Hitting her stride

Blair Ryan

 What a difference a summer makes.

The Oregon women’s cross country team carried the burden of great expectations on its shoulders as the Pacific-10 Conference and NCAA runner-ups from a season ago. It got a reprieve of sorts in the first race of the year, the Pre’s Trail Pre-View, a season warm-up in Alton Baker Park on Sept. 4.

Competing against Oregon State and Portland State, the women sat out top runners Alex Kosinski, Jordan Hasay and Nicole Blood, preserving them for the season. The race was not competitive — the Ducks finished 1-2-3-4 and beat the Beavers and Vikings in the official scorebook — but it would foreshadow the true nature of the depth of the women’s team.

Crossing the finish line first was Lauren Zaludek, a native from Eugene who attended Elmira High School. The senior had just earned her first career win, a prominent note on a thin résumé.

She could taste the win the whole way,” Blood said. “I don’t think she’d had that in a long time, and she was hungry for more.”

More, indeed, was to come. Zaludek has firmly planted herself in the Ducks’ top seven runners and is a threat to score points at Friday’s Pac-10 Championships. Though she was not a scorer at the Pre-Nationals Invitational on Oct. 17 (she crossed the tape in 98th place), Zaludek held a second coming-out party at the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Oct. 2, finishing 12th overall (third among Oregon runners) to help the women to a second-place finish behind Villanova.

“At the Dellinger, she put herself out there,” Blood said, “and I think that’s what made the big click for her.”

The bigger click may have occurred this summer.

Zaludek, a two-time Oregon state runner-up in the 1,500m and one-time runner-up in the 3000m in high school, set modest goals for herself entering the season.

“I wanted to be in the top five for our team for my senior year, be part of the scoring five,” she said. “I wanted to do my best, go out on a good note.”

This summer, Zaludek remained in Eugene and completed the training regiment prescribed by the Oregon coaching staff. As her physical fitness improved, the eyes of her teammates and coaches began to draw toward her.

“I think she was consistent all summer,” head coach Vin Lananna said. “She’s really focused on doing well athletically.”

Lananna described Zaludek’s offseason focus in previous years as “scattered,” some of which he attributed to her academic endeavors. Zaludek is a family and human services and sociology double major with sights set on graduate school, and summer school would consume much of her focus.

“She did a lot more over the summer and really dedicated herself to being a much better athlete,” Lananna said. “As a result, her fitness level is far better than it’s ever been. She and (assistant coach) Maurica Powell have done a really good job of really connecting. They have a good strong relationship. She’s tons better than she was last year.”

Her teammates were getting excited as well.

“I kept in touch with her over the summer, and I knew how hard she was working,” Blood, a close friend of Zaludek, said. “For it to really show off, it’s just really awesome.”

The physical fitness coupled with the improved racing mindset have served Zaludek well early on in the season.

“I think I’ve matured more over the past couple of years, so I kinda know what I need to do in order to run well,” she said.

Zaludek had not raced in the Dellinger since her freshman season in 2006; she finished 82nd in a 95-woman field. The Pre-Nationals was the most significant race she had participated in to date, with one of the largest fields.

“It was one of my first big races. I just didn’t focus as much as I should have,” Zaludek said. “But I should be able to focus for the rest of the season.”

The team feels it can rely on her to play a crucial role at Pac-10s, a race Zaludek has not participated in since 2006. She finished 60th overall and did not score.

“I think if you do your homework, you do a good job, you tend to stay healthy, it all tends to fall into place,” Lananna said. “I think you need both (physical and mental preparation), and she does both.”

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