UM’s Morley racing at nationals Saturday morning

Montana freshman Makena Morley will line up with the nation’s top distance runners Saturday when she competes at the NCAA cross country championships at Louisville, Kentucky.

The women’s six-kilometer race, which is being held at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, starts at 10 a.m. (MT) and can be watched live at NCAA.com. (A link to the stream can be found on the women’s cross country schedule page at gogriz.com.)

Morley is the first Montana runner to compete at cross country nationals since Katrina Drennen in 2009. The Big Sky Conference champion finished eighth at the NCAA Mountain Regional in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last Friday.

With Colorado and New Mexico earning the region’s automatic team bids, plus Utah, BYU and Weber State selected for at-large spots, it left Morley as the No. 3 runner from non-qualifying teams, behind Air Force’s Hannah Everson, who won the regional race, and Colorado State’s Darby Gilfillan, who was fifth.

The top four individuals from non-qualifying teams from each of the nation’s nine regions join the 31 automatic and at-large teams at nationals.

The race caps a successful, if up and down, debut campaign for Morley, who raced to victory at the Montana State Invitational, sat out Montana’s home meet with an injury, placed 39th at Pre-Nationals in Louisville last month on less-than-ideal fitness and confidence, then raced to the Big Sky crown.

“We knew Makena had the potential to be here, but it’s still exciting that she’s actually done it,” said coach Collin Fehr. “She’s certainly earned it. She had to go through some ups and down this season, and that created some doubt, but she worked through all that. Now she’s more confident than ever.”

The top 40 finishers Saturday earn all-America honors. FloTrack does not project Morley to be among that group, which would come as a surprise to Fehr, who expects a top-40 finish at a minimum.

“Makena has to have a good day to be top 10. Things have to come together, but it’s realistic,” he said. “If anything goes even a little bit wrong, you could get spit back 30 spots easily. She realizes that and knows she is going to have to be on her game and bring her absolute best effort and focus.”

Morley led the race at regionals through four of six kilometers. She was still in the top three through five kilometers before getting passed by five more runners over the final kilometer.

“I’m going to try to run a smarter race so I have some more in me with 2k to go,” said Morley. “Hopefully I can pass people instead of having them pass me. I want to have something to race with when the real race actually starts.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of fast girls. A lot of them are older too. They’ve been training for a long time and have raced at this level before. You can’t make mistakes, because you know they are not going to make them. You’ve got to focus on your own race plan.”

Flotrack is predicting a national championship for Boise State freshman Allie Ostrander, of Kenai, Alaska, who won the NCAA West Regional last Friday by 22 seconds, and a team championship for New Mexico.

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