In sports, there are two achievements that are the most difficult. The first is winning a national championship.
It takes a combination of consistency, fortitude and skill to prove your team the victor against all others over the course of a season.
For Taylor, it took 39 years of women’s cross-country and 10 straight years of Crossroads League crowns, but on November 18, 2022, they finally succeeded.
Now at the top of the mountain, the Trojans are setting out to achieve the only thing harder than winning a national championship, and that’s going back and winning it all over again.
2022 was the pinnacle of a 13-year journey for Coach Quinn White, respectfully known as Coach Q around Taylor. After finishing last season 133-0, he and the women’s cross-country team finally have a red banner hanging in Odle Arena right under the men’s 2020 championship memento.
The Trojans, or ‘Maddawgs’ as they refer to themselves, had one of the most dominant seasons in NAIA history. Now it’s 2023, and with the changing of the year, a clean slate and a new season arrive with it.
Winning two straight banners hasn’t been accomplished since the University of British Columbia’s back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017. That doesn’t mean the Maddawgs are shying away from the spotlight. In their first two competitions of the year, the unanimously No. 1 ranked team in the nation hasn’t missed a step.
At the Indiana Wesleyan (IWU) Twilight Invitational, they finished in first place, beating second-place No. 10 IWU by 67 points. A week later at the Ray Bullock Invitational, once again, the Trojans found themselves finishing at the front of the pack, winning by 36 points.
Senior Mollie Gamble, junior Audrey Brinkruff, and sophomores Noel VanderWall and Kaitlin Burden finished in the top five in both races, with Gamble and Brinkruff trading first and second in both events.
Gamble has been one of the standout leaders and runners for the team; she took her initial collegiate first-place finish at the IWU Twilight Invitational on Sept. 8 and was named the Crossroads League Runner of the Week on Sept. 12. As a senior and one of the returning veterans, she knows the team's goals and aspirations by heart.
“During camp week, we do three different goals: cultural, performance and spiritual,” Gamble said. “The performance is ‘big dog’ goals: winning Nationals, (being) conference champs. Cultural is being more mindful, which is our word this year as a team, and setting in that we’re doing this together. And then spiritual, we have something called intentional sisterhood. Every week we get together and give prayer requests and praises…it’s really special for everyone involved.”
Much of the team’s success comes from their tight bond with each other, with their coaches, and with the men’s side of the cross-country team– a side that has dubbed themselves the ‘Jarheads’.
But this year won’t be easy– every Maddawg will have a target on their back. They’ll be faced with nine other Crossroads League teams hungry to end Taylor’s impeccable conference success, as well as every other team in the NAIA wanting to end the season with a banner.
No. 2 Milligan University, No. 3 College of Idaho and No. 4 The Master’s University, are nipping at the heels of Taylor. Meanwhile, Goshen College, Grace College, IWU and Huntington University represent the Crossroads League throughout the Top 25.
The Buffaloes of Milligan will be no pushovers– the 2021 champions entered Nationals last season with an undefeated record, only to be surpassed by the undefeated Trojans.
Coach White, the returning NAIA Coach of the Year, has prepared his team with a philosophy of “practice like you race, race like you practice.” White recognizes the job they have ahead of them and the difficulty that comes with it.
“The ladies would like a shot to repeat, it's gonna be a challenge because there’s some really really good teams out there, and to compete for an 11th straight (conference) title, that'll be a challenge too,” White said.
White’s training and race strategies have led his team to dominate the Crossroads League for the past decade and become a top NAIA program.
Freshman Sam Patterson has completely bought into the Trojan way. She finished in the top 20 in the IWU Twilight Invitational, already carving her own path with the defending champs. Despite only being a few weeks in-person with the team, she has become a part of what makes Trojan cross-country different from every other program.
“We pack up,” Patterson said. “We’ve got really talented girls, but we run together because we know that (by) running together, we’re lifting each other up. That’s something that’s really unique about Taylor. We’re doing it all together, side by side and it shows the body of Christ. We’re one pack seeking to glorify the Lord in our running and building each other up as we’re doing it.”
The Trojans only have two home invitationals during the season. The first was the Ray Bullock Invitational on Sept. 15– which they won. The second will be the Crossroads League Championships on Nov. 3, a mere two weeks before the NAIA National Championships.
“We need people out there. We want students out there wearing their black or their purple and just cheering, cheering,” White said. “You get adrenaline when you're out there and you hear people. We need adrenaline. When you see your wingmates or you just hear people say ‘Go Taylor!’...it gets you excited. The best thing the student body could do would be just literally come out for Conference.”
Coach White is calling for the cheers of 2000 Trojan faithful decked in Taylor Purple and Legacy Gold to uplift the Maddawgs and support the intentional sisterhood of the women’s cross-country team on their campaign to win another championship and glorify God as they go.
There’s only one thing harder than winning a championship: going back and winning it all over again.
So run, Trojans. Run.