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Published November 25 2011

Moorhead's Hansen has developed into one of NCAA Division II's elite runners

Moorhead - There have been times in her running career when Augustana College (S.D.) junior Leah Hansen has had doubts.

The Moorhead High School graduate was heartbroken when she came up empty in several attempts to qualify for the Minnesota state track and field meet. And she was unsure of her place on the Vikings cross country team earlier this season when an injury severely cut into her training regimen.

However, Hansen was calm, poised and focused as she stepped to the starting line for the NCAA Division II cross country national championships last Saturday in Spokane, Wash.

There were no doubts and there was no uncertainty.

And she ran the race of her life.

Hansen’s 12th-place finish helped the Vikings earn the program’s first national title in the second-closest finish in championship meet history. Augustana won by four points over Western State of Colorado.

“It was really surreal,” Hansen said. “It still kind of is. When we first heard the scores we were like, ‘Did that really happen?’ It’s a really rewarding experience.”

Hansen wasn’t a highly touted recruit when she graduated from Moorhead. She didn’t have any state championships in four years on the cross country team. She didn’t even qualify for the state track and field meet.

But her cross country times were solid. And her coaches believed in her ability to progress as a college runner.

“I remember at the section meet of my senior year (in high school),” Hansen said. “I hadn’t qualified for state and I was pretty torn up that I never made it in my career even though we had a pretty tough section. Coach (Tom) Dooher said I was going to be an All-American in college if I wanted to be.

“He was one of the first people I called (after winning the national title and earning All-America honors).”

Hansen has had a steady rise in three years at Augustana. She finished 118th at the national meet as a freshman and 71st last year.

Vikings cross country coach Tracy Hellman said he could see Hansen was poised for a big season this year despite a few early injury setbacks.

“I could see her improvement coming a lot,” Hellman said. “She was always in our top group all year. Every week she was getting better and better. She really had the ability to focus the best out of any of our kids down the stretch. And her best two races where her last two races.”

Hansen finished seventh at the regional meet in Denver to help Augustana to third place and a spot at nationals.

At nationals, in the midst of a winter storm warning and snowy conditions, Hansen led her team to victory.

Hansen said the team was shaken a week earlier with the death of Vikings senior Kelly Kougl’s father. Augustana rallied around Kougl, Hansen said. The team drew closer together and gained strength from Kougl. Kougl finished 29th.

“We were already a really close-knit team,” Hansen said. “It really put everything into perspective. Our coach talked before the meet about enjoying the journey of the season together. It took a lot of pressure to perform off us when we got there.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com