Northeast Georgia will be well represented today at the NCAA women’s cross country championships in Terre Haute, Ind.
Included in the field of 240 competitors will be Georgia’s Kristie Krueger and Kennesaw State’s Mackenzie Howe, who ran cross country and track and played tennis at Oconee County High School.
There’s plenty of historical significance in the meet for both Krueger and Howe.
Krueger, a 5-foot-7 junior from Argyle, Texas, qualified for nationals by winning the South Region title last weekend in Alabama, the first Georgia athlete to do so.
By finishing eighth last weekend, Howe, a 5-7 senior, became Kennesaw State’s first runner to qualify for nationals in Division I.
Krueger comes into nationals on a roll, having won the Southeastern Conference title (only the second Lady Bulldog to achieve that feat) in addition to the South Region crown.
Running for national laurels for the second straight season, Krueger is brimming with assurance.
“Winning those two races definitely gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “It lets me know my training is working. I know I’m fit, I know I’m ready and right now I’m just really excited.”
Although she was slowed slightly earlier this season with a sore knee, Krueger’s health has been much improved over her previous campaigns, when she had mononucleosis as a freshman and swine flu as a sophomore.
“I’ve been on a pretty good stretch this year,” she said. “I took a week off when my knee was bothering me and I’m feeling pretty good. It was about this time last year that I had swine flu. After having been through that, I’ll take the knee injury. If I’m not ready now, I never will be.”
Added Georgia coach Jeff Pigg: “Kristie will be well prepared. I asked her (Thursday) how she was doing and she said, ‘I’m ready to roll.’ As a coach, that’s what you want to hear. That’s the mindset we want her to have.”
Given the number of high-level competitors in the meet, it might seem hard to develop a plan of attack, but Krueger and Pigg feel there is a blueprint for success.
“I’m not planning to change anything – I’m going into this like any other meet,” Krueger said. “The idea is not to try anything crazy and run like I know how to run.”
“Tactically, having a plan is good but, honestly, a big part of it is preparation,” Pigg added. “Our whole thing is she’s got to prepare well, but she’s also got to go out and have a good race at the end of the season. You can be great 364 days a year, but one that one day, if you’re kind of down, that’s not good. You’ve got to be on the upswing and running well at the end of the season.”
For Howe, reaching nationals is a goal she’s had since her freshman season. When she was recently hobbled by a sore right foot, she was concerned that her long-held goal might pass her by.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it because I was a little bit injured before conference and I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to train and get prepared, but I ran well at regionals, so I hope to go out there and do the best I can,” Howe said. “Now my goal is to get All-American.”
In terms of race planning, Howe said she’s only familiar with a few competitors, so she plans to try and stay in the pack with them.
“I’ll go in knowing where I stand with some of the other girls,” she said. “I’ve run against the Georgia girl and the Auburn girl (Holly Knight) and I kind of know their pace, but it will be hard because I don’t know any of the other girls. I’ll try to position myself around the runners I know. I’ve never really run in this meet before so I can’t strategize too much, but I’m going in with an open mind.”
Howe added that with the wealth of high-endurance athletes in the race, she’s dealing with anxiety by reminding herself she qualified for nationals like everybody else.
“I’m trying not to feel intimidated, and I have been telling myself that I’ve earned this position, and even though I’ll be running against the top girls in the country, we all qualified the same way and we’re all at about the same ability level,” she said.