Gene's Blog: Now that's how to do a senior season
June 11, 2013
Taylor Berg (5) had a monster senior season in 2012-13 and ran the third fastest 1,500 meters in Division III history.
Closed-circuit message to all athletes in the Tommie graduating Class of 2014:
If you aspire to finish your college career with a peak instead of a plateau, here’s your role model for senior-year success -- UST Class of 2013 distance running ace Taylor Berg.
You can sum up Berg’s remarkable senior season in three words: Preparation, confidence and execution.
Berg won five All-America honors and five MIAC individual titles this school year in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field. She also broke four school records over the fall, winter and spring.
On May 25, Berg ran the third-best 1,500-meter time in Division III history with an NCAA runner-up time of 4:18.10 at outdoor nationals. Two Wisconsin-Oshkosh NCAA champions, Liz Woodworth in 2004 (4:15.20) and Christy Cazzola in 2013 (4:17.22), are the only Division III runners to go faster.
Put another way, Berg's best time would hold the 1,500-meter school record time at 435 of the 436 Division III institutions.
After the blazing 1,500 at nationals, Berg came back two hours later and placed second in the 5,000 meters. Her 16 team points helped St. Thomas to another top-10 Division III team finish as it placed ninth with 24 points.
Berg’s three-year improvement outdoors in the 1,500 was dramatic. She had a best time of 4:49.22 in the injury-plagued 2011 season. She improved to 4:30.53 as a junior All-America before unleashing the 4:18.10 time as a senior NCAA runner-up.
Tommie coach Joe Sweeney has helped develop a parade of NCAA champion, national runner-up and All-America distance runners during his 33-year career. He said it has been exciting to watch Berg grow and improve over the last four seasons.
“Taylor is a great team leader who personifies what we like to see in a student athlete,” said Coach Joe Sweeney. “She’s an overachiever, a tough competitor, an accomplished student and a team player. She has a real passion for running and the success of our teams, and that is as strong today as it was her freshman year. She has improved season to season and is a great role model for our younger athletes. It will be a huge loss when she graduates, but she has left a legacy that will inspire others to achieve excellence by applying themselves in a similar way.”
Assistant coach Rich Maleniak credited Berg’s passion and focus with her breakthrough on the national scene.
“Taylor is a tremendous competitor who never made excuses, and expected to perform at her best every time she ran,” said Maleniak.
“Her races were just a reflection of how she trained. This year she really focused on being a complete athlete seven days a week, and came to practice every day ready to do the work at the highest level. She always made sure she got enough sleep, ate right, and even on days she didn't feel great, she found a way to get it done. It made it fun to work with her knowing she was going to perform at a consistently high level every day.”
Berg was quick to credit her coaches and teammates for their influence. Maleniak, himself a Division III All-America runner at UW-Eau Claire who joined the St. Thomas staff in 2011-12, had a strong impact.
“Rich did an amazing job working to improve my endurance and speed to have success and huge personal bests in the 800, 1000, 1500, 1600, 3000, 5000 and 6000 this year,” Berg said. “My biggest accomplishment would have to be my 4:18 1500 time. I can recall the workout we did the Friday before the week of nationals that gave me the confidence to run that fast. I was extremely lucky to have someone so knowledgeable and determined to train me as well as Rich did.”
Berg had a solid running career at Eagan High. She ran in four Minnesota state meets in cross country for the Wildcats with a best of 38th as a junior. Her best individual placing was a 10th at state in the mile as a junior. She anchored Eagan’s 4x800 relay to eighth place as a senior, and her best track times were 2:19.42 for 800 meters, 5:08.95 for 1,600 and 11:32.72 for the 3,200.
Her Eagan coach, Rob Graham, and UST’s Sweeney each felt Berg had a chance to be a special runner in college if she could handle the extra training mileage needed to complement her speed.
Berg took 19th at the MIAC cross country meet as a freshman. She had her first breakthrough a few months later in March 2010 as she ran on the Tommies’ NCAA champion indoor distance medley relay team.
Berg took a big step as a sophomore. In cross country she climbed 15 spots to take fourth in the conference meet, and she placed 53rd out of nearly 300 runners at nationals. An injury knocked her out of indoor track but she resumed workouts by April and later placed second in the MIAC for 1,500 meters.
As a junior, she was fourth in the conference meet and 49th at nationals in cross country. Indoors, she was MIAC champ in the mile and runner-up in the 1,000, and ran on a fourth-place distance-medley relay at nationals. Outdoors, she won the 1,500 at conference meet and placed seventh at nationals.
“Coming into my senior year, I wanted to receive All American in cross country, which I had not yet achieved,” Berg said. “I had finished around 50th at nationals in each of the past two years and had races that were average. I had confidence coming off my junior year track season getting my first individual All-American award in the 1500.”
Berg was a force all fall in cross country. She took second out of 381 runners at the St. Olaf Invite; fourth out of 408 at the elite U of M Griak race; and fourth out of 326 at the Pre-Nationals race in Indiana. She took first out of 282 runners at the MIAC Championships to become the first Tommie CC meet winner since 2000. After taking fourth out of 187 runners at the NCAA regional meet with a time of 21:47, she placed eighth out of 277 at NCAA nationals with a career-best 21:23.8 time.
“The top 35 is All-American in cross country, and I ended up in eighth,” Berg noted. “That was a huge accomplishment for me and then influenced the races I chose to focus on in the winter for track. So this year I decided to try the 5,000 for the first time, and it turned out to possibly be my favorite race. Cross country races are 6,000, so I decided I better give the 5,000 a try. I was more comfortable running the 800 and 1500, so training is a little different when you have to incorporate more distance training with speed work.”
Berg had a strong indoor season as she swept the MIAC mile and 1,000 and at nationals took fourth in the 5,000 and ran on the fourth-place distance-medley relay. Outdoors, she helped the Tommies rally to another MIAC team crown as she anchored the 4x800 relay into second place and won the 1,500 and 5,000.
Oshkosh phenon Cazzola finished 30 seconds ahead of eighth-place Berg in winning the NCAA cross country meet last November over the 6,000-meter distance. Yet at the May NCAA outdoor meet, Berg pushed Cazzola to the tape in both the 1,500 and 5,000 as she placed a close second in each race.
Berg ended her Tommie career as an eight-time All-America, a seven-time NCAA champ, and a five-time conference Athlete of the Week. She was voted the 2013 MIAC Outdoor Meet Most Outstanding Track Athlete, and the 2013 Indoor and Outdoor Central Region Track Athlete of the Year. She was a part of five UST records (CC: 21:23.8 for 6,000; Indoors: DMR, 11:37.96; 1000, 2:52.97; mile, 4:55.60; and Outdoors: 1,500, 4:18.10). She just missed Tommie individual records in the indoor 3,000 and 5,000 and outdoor 5,000, records held by legends Gretchen Farkas and Debbie Thometz.
Berg was nominated for Academic All-District with a 3.40 grade-point average while majoring in Mathematics.
Berg will carry tremendous momentum into her post-college racing career.
“I think she's just starting to scratch the surface on how good she can be, and if she can find the time to continue to train with the same intensity, she can go a long way,” Maleniak said. “She ran the third fastest 1500 meters in D3 history at nationals, and was only 1.6 seconds away from hitting the "B" qualifier for the U.S. Championships, so in couple more years, who knows what she could accomplish.”
Berg is intrigued by what she can do in races three miles and longer.
“I can't wait to continue running (the 5,000 meters) to see how much I can better my time,” she said. “Post collegiately I will focus on 5K road races, as well as run cross races unattached. I am joining the Run ‘N Fun racing team, so my goal is to contribute to their team, train hard, keep my miles up, and enjoy running. I finished my career with personal bests, and it is exciting to feel like I still have potential for improvement, so my goal is to take that and run with it.”