Nov. 20, 2021, will be a day forever inked in the history books of North Carolina State University.
For the first time in 38 years, the Wofpack faithful welcomed an NCAA Championship-winning team to the Belltower. That morning, the women’s cross country team became the first program other than men’s basketball to bring home an NCAA team title, beating second-place BYU by an incredibly fitting 38.
“That was just an awesome day and a great weekend for the program,” said head coach Laurie Henes. “For us, I think there was a certain amount of pressure, feeling like we've been ranked No. 1 for a good portion of the season, and so I think that being able to manage that, manage the emotions with that and stay just really consistent with their performance and their practice and that training was really great for me to see as a coach.”
With six straight ACC Championships and multiple top-five finishes at the NCAAs over that span, including a second-place finish last season, the team had been consistently building to this point.
Having been knocking at the door for multiple seasons, Henes credited confidence, consistency and improvement from the top six, as well as the addition of graduate transfer Allie Hays for getting the team over the line this year.
“The people who ended up running in the top six or so for us have had really solid, consistent seasons and when you can do that in cross country and you're going in with everything having gone really well in the lead up, I think that's good,” Henes said. “Last year, we didn't have that. We had some people in our group that just didn't have very consistent buildups that we would have liked. Having had that happen this year, I think really made the difference.”
Henes said despite some hiccups in the buildup — including some sickness and a spider bite — the team was calm heading into the race.
“There was a little bit of apprehension the morning of because they're just a couple things that had definitely not gone 100% according to plan,” Henes said. “But I think, pretty much, people were pretty calm. I think that it was a group that felt pretty confident about if they just did what they'd been doing all year that it would work out and the result would really work out.”
Junior Kelsey Chmiel, who was the top finisher for the Wolfpack, said the team had some nerves going in.
“A lot of us tend to get pretty nervous before the race, but as soon as the gun goes off, we just locked in and were more confident,” Chmiel said.
The race also got off to a poor start, with sophomore Katelyn Tuohy taking a fall at around the mile mark. Henes said Tuohy got back into a good position by the 3k mark and from there the Wolfpack started to feel pretty good about its chances of winning it all.
“I think coming through maybe like 4k, there's still like four or five of us together,” Chmiel said. “And Katelyn took a fall earlier in the race, but I saw that she was back up and I think that's when I was starting to feel pretty good again.”
Confidence didn’t fully hit Henes until the final 1,000 meters, saying when she saw the group with a tight spread at that point, she was confident they would be able to close it out.
Chmiel crossed the line first for the Wolfpack, finishing the race in sixth, but just 18.3 seconds separated her from the Pack’s fifth finisher, junior Sam Bush.
As it crossed the line and hoisted the trophy, the Wolfpack was greeted by a crowd of teammates, parents, alumni, fans and the NC State women’s soccer team, who had played an NCAA tournament game at FSU’s facilities the day before.
“That just made the championship so much sweeter,” Chmiel said. “I would say that we had more fans than any other team. Family but then almost our entire team was able to drive down and then the women's soccer team was a really cool surprise for us at the finish.”
Having such an NC State friendly crowd was only possible because of the location, according to Henes. The team’s actual traveling party for the Championship was small, but being in Florida, plenty of people were able to make their way down.
“I think our sport doesn't get that a lot,” Henes said. “So I think it was a pretty cool moment to have that many people there and have access to the athletes right afterwards. The way the setup is at Florida State is, they have a great facility and great setup. And I think that probably played to it but yeah, it was cool that it was close enough there a bunch of people, alumni, parents, everyone could be there and the soccer team playing there.”
After the race, the team returned to campus where it was greeted by a crowd at the foot of the Belltower, lit red in celebration of the team’s accomplishment.
Among the crowd was former Vice Chancellor Tom Stafford, the keeper of the Belltower keys, who handed those keys to Henes, allowing the team a special moment inside the Belltower.
“That was amazing,” Henes said. “I didn't even know that was an option. We just thought we were going to the Belltower, which in and of itself was amazing to have people there and come back and the police escort. I didn't realize that you could go in. I've been at NC State forever, getting to open up the Belltower and take a team inside. Amazing. And I think they didn't really grasp it until we got the trophy in there.”
The win is a little bit extra special for Henes. An alumnus of the university and program, Henes won an individual NCAA title during her time as a student-athlete and has been on the coaching staff since 1992 and the head coach of the women’s team since 2006. But that isn’t where the connection stops.
Henes’ husband and daughter were both student-athletes at NC State as well, with Elly, Henes’ daughter, winning an NCAA title in the same event as her mother 30 years later.
“I understand how fortunate I am to only have been at NC State athlete-wise, coaching-wise; that doesn't happen in this profession very often,” Henes said. “So I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to stay here, have my whole family be a part of NC State's history and so to be able to lead them to another national championship. ... I've been here a very long time, so to be able to do that for the university at this point meant quite a bit as well.