For two fifth-year seniors on the women’s cross country team, Regionals and the possibility of Nationals compose the final chapter of their storied careers at UC Santa Barbara.
Bethany Nickless and Megan Lewis have combined to drive the Gauchos to a #27 national ranking this year with impressive performances throughout the season including the Roy Griak Invitational, Pre-Nationals and, more recently, the Big West Conference Championships. Numerous accolades highlight their resumes in both cross country and track and field, but Nickless is quick to acknowledge Head Coach Pete Dolan as the guiding light.
“We have been here for four years, and we know what to expect,” Nickless said. “We know that if we follow Pete’s program, it will all work out.”
Nickless, who was slowed by injuries in her first two seasons, was always known for her success in the steeplechase event, but she made quite the impression in cross country when she finished 70th at Pre-Nationals in 2005. She would then go on to take fifth place in the Big West Conference Championships while battling anemia that same year. The Gauchos’ historic 2006 season was a proud one for Nickless after she was named to the All-Big West Team and placed 9th at Nationals. Despite all her success, Nickless decided to rededicate herself to cross country this past summer.
“I had been doing about 70 miles a week prior to this, and this summer, I jumped up to a few weeks of 85 miles a week,” Nickless said. “It has been an increase in the quantity and quality of the miles, the mental focus of it all and being consistent in the miles that I think has led to the change between past years of cross country and this year.”
The training has certainly paid off this season, as Nickless received the title of 2007 Big West Women’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year last Thursday. She has also been named Big West Athlete of the Week on two occasions for her 7th place finish at Griak and her 22nd place result at Pre-Nationals.
“She’s doing awesome,” Lewis said. “She’s always done well with the steeplechase in track and to see her leading along with me [in cross country], I’m very excited for her success. She’s a very hard worker.”
With all that she’s accomplished, Nickless remains humble and eagerly expresses her appreciation for her fellow senior on the squad.
“The [Athlete of the Year] award is tough because Megan is such a great competitor and teammate,” Nickless said. “She deserves it just as much, and I would have been just as happy if she had received it. We’ve learned a lot from each other and we feed off each other. She’s just come so far and worked so hard to get where she is, and I’m so excited to see where she can go with [running].”
After entering the cross country scene in 2003, Lewis followed up a solid freshman season by making dramatic improvements to take 13th place at the Conference Championships in 2004. A summer surgery forced her to redshirt the next year, but Lewis continued her success by earning All-Conference Honors and finishing 15th in last season’s Regional Meet. However, her overall highlight was in track and field that year when she placed 14th in the NCAA Championships 10,000 meter after being named Big West Champion in the same event.
“I trained for the 10k at Stanford last year, and I just ran it a lot better than I thought I would,” Lewis said.
This year, Lewis has turned in strong performances including 12th place at Griak and 30th at Pre-Nationals. She then dominated the Conference Championships and achieved first place with an inspiring run.
“At conference, Megan and I weren’t necessarily running together,” Nickless said. “But I saw her ahead [taking] the lead and I knew she was feeling good, so I used that to push even harder.”
Overall, the women’s team placed first in the meet with 44 points and junior Danielle Domenichelli’s fifth spot rounded out three UCSB placements in the top five. By finishing first and second place respectively in that meet, Lewis and Nickless continue to spearhead the Gaucho charge into the final stages of the cross country season.
“It gives us confidence,” Lewis said. “If we can just keep performing as we have, we will do well. We’re not guaranteed Nationals by any means, because we really have to perform at Regionals. Cross country is so team-oriented and we focus on that a lot, because you make it [to Nationals] as a team.”
When this year’s cross country campaign comes to a close in the coming days, Nickless and Lewis will be anticipating the start of track and field which begins in February, but for now, first things first.
“This year, we would be thrilled with a top-20 finish or a top-25 finish as a team,” Nickless said. “Our main focus is getting the team to Nationals.”