Kassi Andersen returns to the cross country team after two years away. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- Having already claimed four national championship titles, the BYU women's cross country program will hope to add to BYU's legacy in the 2006 season as one of the top teams in the nation.
"This is the largest team we've ever had and it probably has the best depth we've ever had as well," Coach Patrick Shane said. "The incredible depth will pay dividends in the years to come. We had this kind of depth several years ago when we were finishing 1st and 2nd. Depth has always been key to our success."
Many potentially key athletes, including several returning cross country and track All-Americans, will strive to develop the team into the successful programs of years past.
"We definitely have the potential to get on the podium at nationals with a top-4 finish," Shane said. "That is just dependent on how healthy we stay and who steps up and brings their game to a higher level. There's something very special about stepping on the national podium, and we'd like to have that happen again."
Several key factors play into the success of the women's cross country program. One factor is the quality performances and hard work of the athletes.
"We need people to step up and elevate their ability to the next level," Shane said. "There will be athletes who will do that."
A two-time cross country All-American, Kassi Andersen has returned home from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Shane said her previous experience is vital to this team.
"Kassi will definitely be a team leader because she is one of the most experienced competitors on our team, especially at the national level," Shane said. "She leads by example, has a great work ethic and is a very tough competitor."
Another possible prospect is the top returning athlete, Heidi Magill. Magill finished 39th at nationals last year and was named the Mountain West Conference Female Athlete of the Year. After sitting out the track season because of injury, Magill hopes to be ready to compete by the cross country season.
Also returning is sophomore Amy Fowler. Fowler was named an All-American for her performance at the 2006 NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and competed at the Junior World Track and Field Championships in August. She was also the cross country MWC Freshman of Year.
"Amy's experience over the past year will really help her and the team as well," Coach Shane said.
A two-time All-American before her LDS mission, Breanne Sandberg is a veteran to the national scene and hopes to finish her career at the same high level that got her to that point.
Amber Duffin, Sarah Ingebretsen and Jenna Taylor Jensen are also among the top returners from last year and Coach Shane said any one of them could have a breakthrough year of competition.
Ten true freshmen will join the squad this season. Coach Shane said he has high hopes for them in years to come.
"All the freshmen are very talented, but their abilities to contribute at this level are unproven," Shane said. "They certainly have the talent to step up and make a contribution from the beginning."
The team was also fortunate as far as transfers are concerned. Two talented athletes from Southern Utah University, Tawny Bybee and Heidi Houle, will join the roster. Bybee recently married Dustin Bybee of the men's cross country team. Houle joins the team with two years of eligibility to offer the team.
Laura Zeigle, a transfer from the University of Colorado, joins the team for her senior collegiate season. Zeigle was one of the top five recruits in the nation out of Bingham High School and has chosen to return to Utah for her final year of competition. She should make her presence felt immediately.
"The new transfers have a lot of great talent," Shane said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see them step up and contribute right away."
The team's depth combined with a schedule full of competitive meets will allow for more athletes to prove their worth to the team and will also provide much-needed rest between competitions.
Several new meets will supplement the season schedule. One meet in particular at the University of Oregon will offer a first-hand look at some of the best collegiate competition available.
"They've selected some very good teams from around the country to compete at what should be a high-quality meet," Shane said. "The teams represent a cross-sectional look at a lot of great competition, and I'm sure it will be a great meet."
Several members of the team will also race at Walt Disney World. The meet is sizeable and offers plenty of good, southern-flavored competition.
Several other meets offer an opportunity for athletes to develop and show their potential.
The season will culminate with the three most important races of the season in the MWC Championships, NCAA Regionals and finally the NCAA Championships.
In addition to a top finish at the national level, the Cougars will try for their 19th-consecutive conference win.
"Our goals for the season are to stay healthy, to develop the team in such a way that they peak at the end of the year and to come together with a strong team camaraderie and a united purpose of finding how good