From Prep Stars to NCAA Champions

Sept. 28, 2009

By Joe Darda

On a crisp and clear December morning in 2002, a field of 100 seventh and eighth grade girls sprinted from the start line of the Mt. SAC cross country course in Walnut, CA. Within minutes, two pint-sized, pony-tailed runners had separated themselves from the rest, running smoothly, side-by-side along the dusty trails. Mel Lawrence and Lauren Saylor didn't know each other--not yet¬-as the precocious thirteen-year-olds finished first and second, the other competitors still out of sight.

It would have taken more than a little foresight to guess that these two Southwestern girls would eventually become college roommates, teammates, and national champions a thousand miles away at the University of Washington.

It almost didn't happen.

Four years later, as high school seniors, Lawrence and Saylor again met in Walnut for the highly competitive Mt. SAC Invitational, at which they would finish--what else?--first and second. By this time, both were Foot Locker All-Americans and attracting the attention of college coaches from across the country. With the signing period only weeks away, Saylor had all but decided on Washington. Lawrence was kind of, sort of sure she was headed to Oregon.

'Mel and I were talking after the race, and I told her I knew where I wanted to go,' Saylor recalls. 'I wasn't trying to talking her into anything, I was just really excited about what I'd seen at UW.'

Saylor's words--and a chance encounter at the Pac-10 Championships between her mother, Lee Lawrence, and Washington head coach Greg Metcalf--changed Lawrence's mind, and the course of her running career.

'I visited UW right before the signing period and loved it. The coaches were so cool and I just felt more comfortable than I had at Oregon,' Lawrence says. 'If I'd never talked to Lauren that day, I never would have come to Washington.'

And it's a good thing she did.

Since Lawrence and Saylor arrived at UW two years ago, the women's cross country program has improved by leaps and bounds. As Metcalf will tell you, this is no coincidence. 'Adding Mel Lawrence and Lauren Saylor at the same time, I think it really validates what we're doing here and says a lot about where we're headed as a program,' he says. 'Other recruits are more likely to look your way when you have a couple superstars.'

Lawrence and Saylor running side-by-side at the 2002 West Regional 7th-8th Grade Championships in California.

After a three-year absence from the NCAA Championships, the 2007 women's squad, with the help of their star newcomers, didn't just qualify for NCAA's, but posted a program-best eighth place finish. This was exactly what Lawrence and Saylor had hoped for: they were helping build a contender.

'I remember thinking that if both Mel and I went to Washington it could change the team dramatically, personality-wise and performance-wise,' Saylor recalls. 'I wanted to be a part of something unique like that.'

Having visited a number of schools with more established programs, Lawrence, like Saylor, perceived the potential inherent in the Washington team: 'I knew the team was capable of a lot, and I wanted to be a part of that process. I wanted to help build something.'

Freshman year, however, is never easy, especially so when you're balancing schoolwork with three seasons of competition. Saylor struggled with anemia through the fall. Lawrence suffered a wintertime injury that would result in her redshirting the spring track season. As roommates in the dorms, they weathered this adversity together.

'It was difficult not being able to race that spring,' Lawrence says, 'but Lauren is one of the most optimistic people I've ever met. When I was injured and kind of down in the dumps, it was helpful having her around.'

By summer, though, both women were healthy and anxious to train. Back home, Lawrence, in Reno, and Saylor, in Southern California, put in some of the most dedicated work of their young careers and returned to Seattle in the fall ready to run--and run fast. 'They went home that summer and said `dang it, I'm going to kick some butt,'' Metcalf recalls. 'That's what great athletes do, and you could see the difference on the first day of practice.'

The new season brought fresh talent, as Metcalf and assistant Kelly Strong added prep standouts Christine Babcock and Kendra Schaaf to an already loaded roster that included 2007 All-Americans Katie Follett and Anita Campbell. Washington cross country jumped to No. 1 in the national rankings after the season's second race, and was suddenly the toast of the town, but even Lawrence couldn't quite believe the meteoric rise. 'I was blown away by how good we got last year. I knew we had that kind of potential, but up until Pre-Nats [which UW won by 90 points] I don't think I really believed it.'

The women's team went undefeated in 2008, scoring a perfect 15 points at the Pac-10 Championships, before claiming their first national title three weeks later. At NCAAs, Lawrence and Saylor looked every bit the manifestation of the talent they'd shown six years earlier on the Mt. SAC course. Lawrence finished 25th, a 92-spot improvement from the previous year, while Saylor improved a remarkable 212 spots to 41st, as Washington won by 52 points over the second-ranked Ducks.

The scariest thing: the Washington women are, if anything, better today than a year ago.

'The team has improved across the board,' Saylor assesses. 'We've got twenty-two great girls out there working hard everyday.' Saylor, who missed out on All-American honors by a single spot in 2008, says she intends to be 'on that podium' this year. Though the Husky junior expects plenty of company. 'We could have five, or even seven, All-Americans this year. That's a pretty cool thought.'

Lawrence, too, has big goals for the '09 season, including a top-10 individual finish and, more importantly she says, another team championship. The UW women entered the season with a unanimous No. 1 ranking and boast four All-Americans from last year's squad. It's unlikely this would be the case if Saylor and Lawrence hadn't met six years ago, hadn't discussed colleges three years ago, and hadn't signed letters of intent wearing purple sweatshirts. Lawrence is glad things worked out the way they did--who wouldn't be?--and thankful to have Saylor as her teammate. 'I can relate with Lauren on a different level than the other girls because we've known each other so long and had similar experiences. Even if we haven't spoken in three months, I always feel like I can talk to Lauren about anything.'

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