Running cross-country takes commitment and sacrifice. Getting up early every morning and training hard to represent their university is normal for the women’s cross country team at Florida Gulf Coast University. Not that the Eagles would have it any other way.
“Our cross-country teams are the only non-scholarship athletic programs at FGCU,” said head coach Chris Highfield, who doubles as the men’s head coach. “That fact alone speaks volumes about the character of these student-athletes. Not many other people would make this commitment. Our student-athletes do it because they love their sport.”
That type of enthusiasm has Highfield excited about the overall progression of this year’s team. “We have brought in our most talented recruiting class yet – many of them talented local runners – and they are ready to make an early mark on our program”, he said. “It will be exciting to watch these runners develop as both individuals and collectively as a team.”
Those three newcomers look to lead the Eagles into their first year of NCAA Division II competition. Sophomore Katy Steffan (Naples Barron Collier) leads the way for the Eagles. After one season running for Eckerd College, Steffan transferred closer to home and has made a smooth transition into the top spot held last year by Carolyn Johnstone, the school record-holder in the 5-K. “I am thrilled to have Katy as part of our program,” said Highfield. “She is experienced and will have a huge impact on our team’s success this year.”
Pushing Steffan will be a pair of freshmen from Collier County - Laura Salinas (Naples Lely) and Nichole Grothaus (Naples St. John Neumann). A standout cross-country and track performer at Lely High, Salinas had a stellar senior cross country season, finishing seventh at districts, 15th in regionals and 42nd at the Class 4A state finals. She was also an 800-meter district champion, regional runner-up and sixth place finisher at the Class 4A state track meet.
Grothaus also had a successful high school career at St. John Neumann, posting two top-15 finishes in Class 1A state cross-country finals. Grothaus holds the school cross-country records for each grade level. She was also a standout track athlete who set school records in four events, including the 1600-meter and 3200-meter distance races.
A solid group of returnees will be the key for the Eagles post-season team standings. Two Charlotte County natives - seniors Shannon Shockey (Punta Gorda Charlotte) and Jamie Knapp (Englewood Lemon Bay), a former swimmer at the College of Charleston - lead the veterans. Junior Antoinette Savino (Largo), a two-year team captain, plus sophomores Lindsey Garven (Oviedo) and Erika Long (Naples Barron Collier) will push the newcomers.
For the first time in the program’s history, FGCU will have an opportunity to compete in NCAA Division II at the regional meet scheduled for November 6 in Memphis and the Division II National Finals later that month. Cross-country is unique in regards to post-season competition. Both teams and individuals can qualify for regional and national meets.
“With effort every day, we will improve week by week,” said Highfield. “Hopefully as we move through our season, we will have a number of runners finishing in the top half of our races. Our goal is to send our team to Memphis. We hope to represent FGCU for the first-time ever in NCAA post-season competition.”
Just the way his team wants it.