C of I seniors run circles around the competition
Similar circumstances brought runners Hillary Holt, Jasmine Hurd, Sara Johnson and Sora Klopfenstein to The College of Idaho.
Like many Coyote athletes, the foursome arrived in Caldwell underestimated, under-recruited and under the radar.
Four years later, the four seniors walked across the Boone Hall steps having accomplished more than any teammates—in any sport—in the 123-year history of the College.
“I won the lottery with this group,” C of I track and cross country coach Pat McCurry said. “Getting elite athletes like Hillary, Sora, Sarah and Jasmine all in the same class; I don’t know if I’ll ever pull that off again. They are a rare group, and they’ve raised the profile of C of I track and field on a national level.”
In four incredible years, the Coyote quartet racked up 13 national titles and 36 All-America selections while contributing to five Cascade Conference team titles and three NAIA National team trophies.
It has been an unprecedented run of success, one that nobody—not even McCurry—could have envisioned when the foursome first set foot on campus.
A REBUILDING PROCESS
When the Class of 2014 arrived in Caldwell, McCurry was six years into reconstructing the College’s track and cross country programs, which he was hired to restart in 2004 after a nearly 30-year hiatus. The seeds of success had been planted, but the program had yet to break through.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have [Athletic Director] Marty Holly, who has been so supportive of the vision I had coming here,” McCurry said. “He’s allowed me to take the program as far as I believe it can go, but the process definitely has taken some time.”
Hurd, who competes in hurdles, sprints and multi-events, was one of just two throwers at the College during her freshman year. As a senior, she saw both school shot put records broken by current freshmen Andrew Galloway and Jessica Bates.
“We actually have a throwing crew this year, which is awesome,” Hurd said. “It’s cool that the C of I is on the map now when it comes to track and field.”
Freshman year came and went as Holt, Hurd, Johnson and Klopfenstein settled into college life while making major improvements to their training habits and fitness.
Today, the four recent graduates are dramatically different both as athletes and as people. Only small things—such as Johnson’s “Bobbles” nickname—serve as reminders of how far the group has come.
“When I first came here, I bobbled my head when I ran,” Johnson said. “It was really bad. We’ve worked hard to fix it—sometimes it still happens when I get really tired—but Pat started calling me ‘Bobbles,’ and the nickname stuck.”
As the calendar turned to the 2011–2012 season, it became apparent McCurry had some special talent on his roster. The women’s cross country team led by Holt, Johnson and Klopfenstein captured its first of three consecutive Cascade Conference championships in the fall.
The girls seemed to be getting faster by the day.
“I think our sophomore year, we all realized our potential,” Klopfenstein said. “And we were able to build on that.”
The breakout season continued into the spring as the Coyotes sent twice as many qualifiers to NAIA Outdoor Nationals as they had the year before. And Holt—who had missed most of indoor season with a stress fracture in her leg—unleashed a stunning performance in the 1,500 meters to win the first individual national championship in school history.
“When I first came here, I never dreamed I would be as successful as I have been,” Holt said. “But when I won my first national title, it changed everything. I began to realize I had more potential than I ever imagined.”
Klopfenstein added a runner-up finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, capping the most successful day of individual competition the C of I track program had ever seen.
“I’m just so happy for the girls when they perform well individually,” McCurry said. “Hillary’s first title, she had just come off a pretty serious leg injury. I was so proud of her for overcoming that adversity.”
The best was yet to come.
MARCH 3, 2013
Junior year started with a bang for the Coyote runners. The women’s cross country team successfully defended its Cascade Conference title and placed second at NAIA Nationals as Holt raced to her second national title as individual champion.
As fall turned to winter, the Coyotes seemed poised for greatness at NAIA Indoor Nationals. Holt was favored to win the indoor mile, while the C of I distance medley relay team was—at long last—fully healthy and ready to dominate.
Or so it seemed.
On the eve of competition, illness befell the C of I team. Holt managed to avoid the bug and captured her third and fourth national titles, dominating both the mile and the 3,000 meters. Johnson was less fortunate—she was too ill to compete in her events, including her key leg on the DMR team.
Faced with limited options, McCurry patched together a relay squad of “whoever wasn’t throwing up,” as Hurd put it. Hurd would run the 400 meters, then-senior Elynn Smith would run the 800, Klopfenstein would run Johnson’s 1,200 leg and Holt would be the anchor—her third race of the day.
Improbably—in a race that will forever live on in the hearts and minds of all involved—the Coyotes won the championship, with Holt chasing down the leader with 800 meters to go and leaving the competition in the dust as the C of I won by a 12-second margin in a school-record time of 11 minutes, 49.7 seconds.
“I get so emotional talking about that race,” Hurd said. “Watching Hillary get the baton and reel that girl in, it was just the best thing ever. Running with three other people counting on you, and winning it the way we did, it was a really special moment.”
For McCurry, the moment meant so much more than a national championship plaque.
“That race has come to embody the spirit of the whole women’s team,” McCurry said. “We were not the best team on paper—I would have been happy with a top-six finish—but the girls all ran the best race of their lives in that moment, and I think that embodies who these girls are as a group.”
Even Johnson has a treasured keepsake from that day.
“The girls gave me their shells [from the starting gun], which was really special to me,” Johnson said. “It showed that they were out there running for me, knowing I would have been out there if I could have.”
Success brings notoriety, and the events of March 3 meant the Coyotes no longer had the element of surprise on their side.
But rather than feel satisfied with past accomplishments, the girls redoubled their efforts, striving to improve with every race.
“It definitely feels good to win, but I never let it occur to myself that ‘I’m the best’ or anything like that,” Holt said. “I’m always asking for more of myself and I’m always getting ready for the next challenge.”
McCurry keeps the team on a rigorous practice regimen, but he says it’s the things the girls do outside of practice that have allowed them to stay ahead of the competition.
“We talk a lot about the other 22 hours,” McCurry said. “We get them for two hours a day, and they are awesome in practice. But if you want to reach your potential, you have to be an athlete the other 22 hours of the day, and that means extra runs, extra training, eating right, getting enough sleep, your social choices and how you manage your time academically. All of those things go into it.”
Holt, whose ferocious running style is hard on her body, spends countless hours training in the pool and doing extra maintenance work—such as stretches, ice baths and individual exercises—to keep herself operating at a peak level of performance. The rest of the team does plenty of extra work, too, whether it’s individual workouts in the weight room or group runs around campus.
“We do it because we care about the team,” Johnson said. “It matters a lot to us. I never want to let my teammates down.”
Adds Klopfenstein: “I feel so lucky to be a part of this group. It’s great to be surrounded by people who work just as hard as you and who want to see you succeed. If we didn’t have each other, we wouldn’t be as successful.”
MORE NATIONAL TITLES
All the extra work continued to pay off for the Coyotes as the 2012-2013 season came to a close. Holt defended her 1,500-meter title at Outdoor Nationals, while Klopfenstein got her own moment in the sun, capturing gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase to become the College’s second individual track champion.
“Sora has been a workhorse who has done so much for our team,” McCurry said. “When she won, that was her moment to be the best at her best event.”
It also was a special experience for Klopfenstein’s teammates, who enveloped her in a tearful embrace at the finish line.
“It was very emotional for me,” Holt said. “I remember how happy it made me to win my first national title, and to see Sora experience the same thing—it brought Sarah and I to tears. We see how hard Sora works and we know how badly she wants it.”
Holt also began to gain recognition outside of NAIA competition. She won the 1,500-meter title at the prestigious Oregon Twilight in May 2013 and qualified for the 1,500-meter finals at the U.S. National Championships the following month. While she missed out on a top-three finish and a trip to the World Championships, Holt’s performance opened doors to new possibilities after college.
“Hillary has a great chance to be a full-time athlete, which is very rare in our sport, especially at the NAIA level,” McCurry said. “She was one of the 12 best 1,500 meter runners in the nation last year, so she’s right there. And there are a lot of things she can add to improve down the road.”
With graduation quickly approaching, McCurry’s fearsome foursome continued to add to its resume this spring. NAIA Indoor Nationals in March brought three more national titles and a third-place team finish. Holt repeated in the mile and 800 meters, while the DMR team also defended its title, running a full eight seconds faster than last year to finish in a school-record 11:41.57.
Holt and Hurd repeated on the DMR team, this time joined by senior Jordan Engelhardt and Johnson, who finally captured her elusive national championship.
Johnson added a second title at Outdoor Nationals – this time one she could call her own. In the final race of her collegiate career, Bobbles broke away from the field to win the 5,000 meters in 17:24.06. She becomes the third individual national champion in program history.
“More than anything else, running for the C of I has taught me a lot about being resilient,” Johnson said. “Pat and the girls have taught me to never give up on my dreams.”
Holt capped her unprecedented career by winning the outdoor 1,500 for a third consecutive year, pushing her career total to nine individual national titles and 11 overall. She added a third-place finish in the 800, while Klopfenstein and Hurd also earned All-America honors in their final C of I meet.
With collegiate competition in the rearview mirror, the Coyote runners’ thoughts turn to the lessons they have learned both on and off the track during the past for years.
“I’ve grown so much, not just as an athlete, but as a person,” Holt said. “I’ve learned that running makes me the best version of myself: Determined, a fighter, and passionate to the point of obsession. I want to discover my full potential. When I hang up the racing shoes, I want to know I did everything I could and that I ran as fast as I possibly could.”
“I’ve definitely become a much happier person,” adds Hurd. “We’re a family.”
“We have a special team here,” Klopfenstein said. “We are so close and we work so well together. I just feel blessed to be a part of it.”
In turn, McCurry’s four standouts have made an indelible mark on The College of Idaho. The legacy they leave behind is one of hard work, all-in commitment to the team and, of course, winning.
It is a legacy that already is being embraced by the younger members of the team—and it is something far more enduring than the names “Hillary Holt,” “Jasmine Hurd,” “Sarah Johnson” and “Sora Klopfenstein” etched upon stacks of trophies and plaques.
“These kids have changed the culture forever,” McCurry said. “They love to work. It’s just what they do—they enjoy working hard and they embrace the challenge of it.”