Stephanie Ward surprised herself. She was hopeful for a successful freshman campaign at the University at Buffalo. But she didn't expect to earn Freshman of the Year honors in the Mid-American Conference, placing 13th at the conference meet while being the highest placing freshman at the Northeast Regionals.
Her times kept dropping, her pace kept getting faster, and her results were, well, better than maybe anyone expected.
That early success provided her with motivation to see just what she was capable in her collegiate career.
"I was very surprised," Ward said about her freshman season at UB. "I'm like oh my gosh, I can't believe I've come this far. I didn’t think I could. Well, I did I guess, but it just motivated me to never give up. Sometimes you may have some bad days but it always will lead to something greater. It's been great and just seeing that improvement from freshman year, it just excited me for my sophomore year coming in."
And what a sophomore year it's been.
Ward won her first two races of the season, the Harry Lang Invitational hosted by Colgate and the UB Stampede, held at the Audubon Golf Course – the same course that will host the NCAA Northeast Regional.
She earned MAC Runner of the Week honors for her performance at the Lehigh Paul Short Invitational, an annual meet which attracts a highly competitive field with ranked teams. Ward took 13th out of 369 runners and ran a personal best 20:20.00 over the 6K course. That gave her a season-best average pace of 5:27 per mile and helped elevate the profile of UB cross country.
"I think it also helps us from others looking in at our program going hey Buffalo just had a girl in the top 20 at Paul Short?" said UB coach Vicki Mitchell. "You look at a field of 400 and when you have someone in the top 20, it turns some eyes."
Her consistency puts her as one of the favorites heading into the MAC Championships, scheduled for Saturday at Miami (Ohio).
Ward did entertain thoughts of a sophomore slump, but quickly moved past them to focus on the work she's put in rather than what could possibly go wrong.
A sophomore slump "did worry me because I know sometimes people have that one year where they don't have a PR and I was like oh gosh who knows?" Ward said.
"I was like, you know what, that's not going to happen," said Ward, a native of Honeoye who was an elite high school runner in Georgia at the Darlington School, a boarding school. "I kept it positive, just took it step by step. I just don't think about the negative things that could happen because it just creates more negativity and you don't want that. I just made sure to focus and did my training and just made sure to recover after every run."
That mentality has impressed Mitchell, who has been conservative with her approach, gradually increasing Ward's mileage to prevent injury and fatigue, the two worst enemies of a distance runner.
"Obviously she has talent, but she's incredibly focused and disciplined and determined," Mitchell said. "Which when you take those factors, if you've got the mindset and then you have the physical ability on top of it, that's like a scary combination.
"She has a very good perspective on things. I do 100 percent think she surprises herself. … I think she's starting to grasp and understand how to execute her race plans well. Her races so far this far have been executed to a 'T.' It's because she listens, she internalizes, she understands this is going to get the outcome she wants. If we can go into our conference meet with that, with a degree of patience early in the race, go into the regional meet like that, that will set her up for success."
But setting up for success can be challenging in collegiate cross country. Unlike other sports, conference championships have no impact on who goes to the NCAA championships. That field is determined at the nine NCAA regional events, which are open to every school in that region. There are no automatic conference qualifiers. The only way to the national event is for your team to finish in the top two at the regional or to be one of the top four runners not on one of those advancing teams. There are at-large bids which are awarded on a points system built up during the year.
In short, it's very difficult to get to the national meet. And it's difficult for coaches to decide which meets to prioritize for their runners.
"As a coach, you want to see your team or individuals get into the NCAA championship. That is the ultimate goal," Mitchell said. "However, that does not necessarily garner the recognition that your administration may want. Your administration may want to see you win a conference championship. But that is two weeks before our national qualifier. I don’t believe in peaking, but I can't have them be ready for two races to say this is the end of the season and go all-out and race. You have to pick and choose. We'll be prepared for both and go out to fight for both, but you have to decide what's more important."
Ward is taking it one step at a time. And whenever she races, whatever she races for, it's the competition that she continually falls in love with.
"I just love competition so knowing that it's something big and it's a meet that's huge and everyone talks about MACs and all that, it motivates me," Ward said. "It gets me excited because I just love to compete against other teams and show everyone what we have as a team. Competing is just what I love."