When Sarah Berger stepped on the Walsh University campus, she was a soccer player who also liked to run.
Over the course of her career, however, Berger has become one of the top distance runners in Division II, slowly phasing out the sport that dominated her focus to concentrate on increased mileage and improving her running style.
“I came here with running as a secondary activity, almost like an experiment of if I could make it in college,” the Wadsworth graduate said. “I fell in love with the sport because I was blessed with an absolutely amazing coach who let my passion for the sport develop at my own pace.”
Berger is an All-American on the track for the Cavaliers and spent her first three seasons as an all-region soccer defender, but she decided to do something different by running cross country for a full season.
The move proved to be a good one, as Berger wrapped up her impressive “rookie” season with a runner-up finish at the NCAA D-II Championships in Evansville, Ill.
“It was definitely an awesome way to cap off my first season,” Berger said. “I knew going into the season that qualifying to nationals as a team and getting top three were my goals, but I also knew that achieving these was going to take a lot of hard work and a little luck.”
The senior was the Great Midwest Athletic Conference champion and earned G-MAC Athlete of the Week honors three times before winning the Midwest Regional.
On Saturday, Berger made up five spots over the final mile to finish in 20:52.1, helping Walsh to 12th.
“I pretty much went into the season without any expectations, but I kept those goals in the back of my head,” Berger said. “I knew national runner-up was possible, and I knew it was going to be hard to achieve because there are so, so many extremely talented runners that I’ve competed against.”
Even better than personal accomplishments, Berger helped the Cavaliers to their first national championship bid as a D-II program and first appearance overall since 1982.
“My senior year really has been a whirlwind so far,” she said. “I didn’t think I would like cross country as much as I did, and it was a great surprise to be able to be a part of such a tough, successful team.”
Berger, who ran a 20:52 to break the G-MAC 6K record at the All-Ohio Championships, credits the patience and guidance of the Cavaliers coaching staff.
Coach Rob Mizicko and Berger’s teammates proved to be vital for the already-accomplished 1,500-meter runner as she adjusted her talent to the grueling inclines and various challenges of cross country courses.
“I just tried to take every meet and workout in stride while keeping in mind that every time I raced it was a learning experience,” Berger said. “Everyone always believed in me, even when I had doubts, and that really kept me going.”
Berger now will set her sights on continuing that success on the track, where she already has dominated.
The multiple-time All-Gazette pick was third in the mile a year ago at Indoor Nationals and the outdoor runner-up in the 1,500. She also ran on a nationally-ranked distance medley relay.
With what she proved to herself this fall, Berger is more than ready.
“It really gives me confidence that I can race with some of the best girls in the country,” she said. “Obviously I’m hoping to finally win an NCAA title, so I’m hoping that adding this extra base from cross country will help me take that next step in my training and racing.”
Contact Dan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.