Many fans wondered about the fate of the UC Santa Barbara women’s cross country team when six seniors graduated following the historic 2006 season. On a cool Monday morning at the NCAA Championship in Terre Haute, Ind., any remaining questions were emphatically answered.

As a team, the Gauchos finished in 19th place out of a national scene that includes over 300 schools and that was reason enough for Head Coach Pete Dolan to smile.

“Overall, our experience and strength kept us in this thing,” Dolan said. “It just sounds so cool to say, ‘Top 20.’ I mean we’re mixing it up with the best in the country, and if you look at some of the teams we beat – like Wisconsin, Michigan, Providence and BYU – no one expected us to beat those teams.”

Senior Bethany Nickless led UCSB with a 66th-place finish (21.19) followed closely by fellow senior Megan Lewis who took 68th with a time of 21.20 on the 6k course.

“Megan and Bethany ran well, but we may have left something at Regionals,” Dolan said. “They probably could have moved up if it wasn’t for those 12 seconds, but there were a lot of great girls in front and behind them.”

Also contributing to the team’s top-20 performance were junior Danielle Domenichelli who placed 101st (21.33) and junior Liza Hitchner, who came away with 143rd place (21.51). Freshman Breanne Strenkowski again turned in a solid time of 22.34, which was good for 211st out of the 253 spots reported.

“We didn’t have our best day, and [the women] were not happy afterwards,” Dolan said. “Everyone except Danielle thought they could have done better, but our experience helped us finish 19th.”

Stanford captured their third consecutive team title by 32 points, while Texas Tech junior Sally Kipyego won the race for the second straight year.

This was the fourth trip to Nationals in the last five years for the Gauchos, with their highest placement coming in the ninth spot at the 2006 Championship.

“This is a result that will sink in for about a month with me,” Dolan said. “When I look at the results, it’s almost as incredible as last year’s ninth. Our goal was top-10 for the last two years and I knew it was going to be a bonus to beat our 26th ranking.”

Only two seniors, Lewis and Nickless, will move on from the 2007 squad after leading Santa Barbara to its third-best finish at Nationals in school history and thus continuing the tradition of success for UCSB cross country.

“It will go down as a big year,” Dolan said. “A lot of people wrote us off especially after we graduated six seniors, but everything really came together for us this season.”