It’s not often the most talented athlete on a team’s roster has to wait until their final year of eligibility to earn a scholarship.
Gophers cross country All-American Steph Price is a part of that minority.
Price didn’t run cross country until her senior season of high school, and she was a walk-on in her first season with Minnesota in 2008. Three years later, she is the team’s top runner, and fresh off a sixth-place finish at the NCAA midwest regional.
She said her success with the Gophers has been more than she could have ever dreamed.
In fact, it was almost nothing more than a dream.
Price said she was ready to give up running after her senior year in high school. Minnesota head coach Gary Wilson is glad she didn’t.
“I was already planning on going to the University of Minnesota for school,” Price said, “and my high school coach knew coach Wilson somewhat and knew that he took walk-ons, so he got me in contact with [Wilson], and it was kind of just a split-second decision. I decided to walk-on and didn’t really think much of it.”
Despite being a walk-on, Price earned a spot as a participant in her first meet at the Oz Memorial. Two weeks later, she had improved her 6-kilometer time by 50 seconds.
It was then that Wilson realized he had a special runner on his hands.
“We ended up running her [in her freshman season], which we shouldn’t have done,” Wilson said. “All of a sudden at about the third meet in I said to [assistant] coach Hesser — and I bet I said it 10 times during the season — we have made a mistake by running this kid because you could just tell she was going to be good.”
Because they decided to run Price in her first year rather than use a redshirt, she lost a valuable year of eligibility, which could have contributed to her growth.
Nonetheless, Price steadily improved.
She was named the Gophers’ Freshman of the Year in her first season, an All-Midwest Region selection in her sophomore campaign and an All-American last year.
She will repeat as an All-American in 2011 if she finishes 40th or better at the NCAA championships Nov. 21.
“I think growth was somewhat gradual for me — even coming in as a freshman I just expected to be someone on the team,” Price said. “I just kept getting better and better, and it wasn’t even until last year when I was an All-American that it kind of hit me.”
She didn’t reach the top level by accident. As a freshman, she was an impatient student-athlete, something Wilson said she’s improved.
“She’s one of these kids that wants to be really good, and we’ve had to tell her that it’s going to happen, but it doesn’t happen just by doing some magic workout,” Wilson said. “It takes time, it takes focus and doing things the right way, and she’s done those things.”
Price has trusted Wilson’s process, but admitted it wasn’t easy at times because she couldn’t see immediate results.
“I think that process is really hard to trust in until you’ve gone through it, and then you look back and try to think, ‘What did I do that really set me apart?’”*** Price said. “It’s not any one special thing. It’s just all those little things that add up.”
She has followed up her junior All-American season with a successful senior season to date.
Price placed fifth at the Roy Griak Invitational and at the Big Ten championships and sixth at the NCAA midwest regional Nov. 12.
On Sunday, the Gophers received an at-large bid to the NCAA championships, where Price will headline the scoring group for the second year in a row.
She placed 31st at the NCAA championships last year, but said Monday she thinks she has the capability to be a top-15 finisher this year.
Regardless of her finish, Nov. 21 will close a chapter in Price’s life, as it will be her last cross country meet with Minnesota.
“It’s been amazing — I never in my mind thought I’m going to be an All-American or I’m going to be one of the top runners in such a prestigious program,” Price said. “I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. There’s not a day that I’m not glad that I decided to walk on here and it’s been such a great experience.
I’ve exceeded any goals that I could have ever dreamed of achieving.”