CHICAGO – Loyola senior Gina Valgoi has put herself into position to do something no other Ramblers female ever has: run in the NCAA Cross Country National Championship Meet.
By finishing sixth overall at the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, Mo., on Nov. 10, Valgoi earned an automatic berth into the NCAA Championship field. She will compete in the Nationals on Saturday, Nov. 17, at Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.
It is the product of four years of dedication for the native of Detroit, Mich., and proof that hard work does pay off in the end.
Looking back, head coach Randy Hasenbank can remember the moment he realized Valgoi had the potential to churn out this impressive senior season. During a track meet last spring at Stanford, Valgoi ran a 10K race in 33:53.81 – fast enough to qualify to the “B” standard at the Olympic trials.
“We knew she was going to have a great opportunity for a great fall, but you still have to go out and do it and she did,” Hasenbank said. “We’re proud of her. She’s a very, very inspirational runner. I think she’s made a big difference in the progress we’ve made with this program because she’s such a fantastic student-athlete. She’s someone who has been super dedicated to the process of getting better.”
Hasenbank pointed out that Valgoi didn’t even break the top 100 at the Midwest Regional as a freshman and that last season, as a junior, Valgoi finished 79th. The coach sees Valgoi’s dedication and improvement as an example he will use to inspire other runners for years to come.
Valgoi see things differently, though, pointing out that she has started to truly reach her potential in just the past year and a half, since Hasenbank has taken over the program.
“When the new coaching staff came in, there was definitely a shift in attitude and goals. The attitude was much more positive and we set high goals,” Valgoi said. “Whether or not we reached them, they were still our goals and that’s what it takes to be a successful program. I’ve really benefited from it personally as a runner and I think the team has, as well.”
The Ramblers ended this season at the top of the Horizon League, winning the late-October championship meet in Kenosha, Wis., with just 28 points. Valgoi took medalist honors in the race, finishing only four seconds off of the Wayne E. Dannehl National Cross Country Course record and outpacing her closest opponent by nearly a full minute. For her efforts, she was named the Horizon League Women’s Runner of the Year.
While that would likely have been a satisfying culmination to a season and a career, Valgoi has put herself into a position to compete for a national championship with her inspired performance at the Midwest Regional.
“Being able to finish first in the Horizon League gave me a ton of confidence. It was a great race for me,” Valgoi said. “Anytime you’re able to do that well in anything you do gives you the confidence to try to do things that may be harder or seem out of your reach. It definitely helped me in the Regional and going forward.”
That confidence will be important for Valgoi come Saturday, as she is the lone Rambler competing. Still, she knows she has the support of her teammates.
“Practice this week has been funny. The rest of the girls have started their time off between seasons, so I’ve been practicing by myself,” Valgoi said with a laugh, but added, “A lot of teammates are coming down [to Louisville] and supporting me. I don’t feel like I’m going to be by myself at all.”
Hasenbank said he has confidence in Valgoi and knows she won’t let the grand stage go to her head.
“That’s one of the great things about her: she’s fairly even-keeled emotionally,” Hasenbank said. “The highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. She doesn’t have much of an ego at all. She really just takes care of her business.”
And if Valgoi takes care of her business in the same fashion she has during the Horizon League Championship and Midwest Regional, there may be yet another honor awaiting her. Each of the 40 fastest individuals at the National Championship will be named All-Americans. Hasenbank believes Valgoi has a chance to earn that distinction.
“She’s going to have a shot at that Top 40,” Hasenbank said. “It’ll be tough, but she can do it.”
No matter where Valgoi finishes, the experience is certainly one she will cherish. And though it may be bittersweet that her collegiate cross country career is coming to a close, Valgoi knows that her legacy can inspire future Ramblers to be just as successful – or even more so.
“It’s kind of sad that it’s my last race, but I’m really happy I was able to make it to the national meet,” Valgoi said. “Being the first woman from Loyola to do that, I’m showing my teammates and future [Ramblers] that it’s obtainable. I’m paving the way, I guess, for more girls to go and to be even more successful.”