Race to the Top
The Wolfpack women's cross country team makes history, bringing home the university's first national title in any sport since 1983.
When five NC State women’s cross country runners crossed the finish line among the top 32 finishers at the NCAA Championships in Tallahassee, Florida, on Nov. 20, they brought home the school’s first national title in any sport in 38 years and the first for a women’s program since the 1979 and ’80 women’s cross country teams won back-to-back Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women’s (AIAW) championships.
It was an amazing confluence of events for the Wolfpack distance-running family, contested in the same town where the early Wolfpack won its first AIAW title in 1979 and just four days before the 40th anniversary of Betty Jo Springs (now Geiger) winning the first women’s championship ever sponsored by the NCAA, a 5K cross country race in Wichita, Kanas.
The Wolfpack, which entered the weekend ranked No. 1 in the nation, led the 6,000-meter race from beginning to end, dominating even after sitting its best runner out at the NCAA regional race two weeks prior. Led by sophomore Kelsey Chmiel, State’s runners finished 6th, 15th, 18th, 24th and 32nd in the race, winning with 84 points over second-place Brigham Young’s 122 points.
“The cross country race is one of the most unpredictable events in the country,” said women’s cross country coach Laurie Henes, a former NC State distance runner and graduate of the university. “It’s 250 good people lined up together on a course.
“You have to have five really good runners put together their best performances all on the same day, in the same race. We were fortunate to be able to do that.”
All five of the Pack’s scoring runners were named All-Americas, a school record in a single race for the Wolfpack running.
“We do kind of have the perfect mascot for cross country because we are always running as a Pack,” Henes said. “And that definitely was the case in the championship race.”
Henes has poured most of her life into the Wolfpack’s family-friendly running program, beginning with her collegiate career under longtime cross country and track and field head coach Rollie Geiger. Her husband, Bob Henes, was also a multiple ACC champion during his running career in the 1990s, while she was earning a degree in history and doing the coursework for a sports management master’s and he was earning a degree in industrial engineering.
She won the 1991 NCAA 5,000-meter track and field championship her senior year and continued in international racing, competing in the World University Games in 1993, for the USA Track and Field team at the 1995 World Championships and at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1996.
She excelled as a student, earning the ACC’s Marie James Scholarship and an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. She is a two-time winner of NC State’s H.C. Kennett Award as the school’s top-performing female athlete (1990-91 and 1991-92).
She coached her eldest daughter, Elly, for five years with the Wolfpack as the younger Henes earned a degree in psychology. Last spring, Elly Henes won the same NCAA championship that her mom did and also earned the H.C. Kennett Award. Henes’ youngest daughter Jordan is a student at Appalachian State.
Despite the individual titles, the successful women’s cross country program had not won a team title since before the NCAA era, which began in 1981. Before, the AIAW was the governing body for women’s collegiate sports and oversaw the team national titles State won in 1979 and ’80, including back-to-back individual titles for Julie Shea.
Springs won the individual title in the NCAA’s inaugural season and again in 1983, while Suzie Tuffey won the individual title as a freshman in 1985.
Henes has guided the Wolfpack to six Top 10 NCAA finishes, including a program-best second-place finish last year. To be honest, though, being runners-up for the third time in school history was a little disappointing. So this year’s win was cause for celebration.
Guiding the Pack
For a race of less than 20 minutes, much preparation goes into the training and execution of winning at the national meet. Henes has been enormously successful at doing that in the 15 years since taking over the women’s cross country program from mentor Rollie Geiger.
She’s been named the ACC Coach of the Year seven times, including the last six years consecutively as the Wolfpack women won six straight ACC titles. Last week, Henes was named the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association national coach of the year.
This week, in addition to Henes’ honor, Chmiel was named the ACC’s top women’s cross country performer for 2021.
Henes chalks up her successful coaching resume, which is about as long as a 10,000-meter race, to longevity.
“I’ve been here forever,” she said.
And now she and her program are standing tall on the championship podium.