Biola’s women’s cross country team has come a long way over the past five years — and not just because they’ve collectively run thousands of miles during that time.

After finishing unranked merely five years ago, the team has quickly built a reputation as one of the nation’s best. In November, the team finished the season ranked second in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for the second year in a row, as well as first in the Golden State Athletic Conference.

For the seniors on the team — Katie Thede, Kelsey Gasner and Sarah Brooks — it’s been exciting to see the program turn around during their years at Biola. The women have helped to create both a winning team of runners and a close-knit group of friends.

“I don’t think we ever would have imagined running our personal best times over and over or finishing second in the nation two years in a row,” said Thede. “Emotionally we have learned how to work together as friends and teammates and that has taken us a long way.”

When the three seniors arrived at Biola as freshmen, they quickly learned how to lead, as the small number of seniors on the team graduated. The second place finish at the 2010 NAIA national championships for a second year in a row is due to their emotional stamina as much as their physical stamina, said the women.

“It’s been intensely satisfying to see all this transpire over the past four and a half years,” said coach Jonathan Zimmerman. “To have these student-athletes being stewards of their gifts and opportunities and to be reflecting Christ socially, academically and athletically is very humbling.”

When Zimmerman came to Biola in 2006, he immediately began recruiting. Gasner, Thede and Brooks were some of his first recruits. Coming onto an unranked team, they had a reputation to build both at Biola and in the running world.

“We have had to overcome being the unknown team at big meets with Division I schools,” said Gasner. “That reputation includes not only running well, but also being set apart by having good attitudes, running fairly and loving each other well.”

Part of the women’s success as a team stems from the fact that they’re not just focused on athletic achievements, but on the health of their academic and spiritual lives, too, Thede said.

“We’re leaving a team that is built on more than just how we finish and is more about character and using the talents God has given us to glorify him, and we are being blessed for it,” said Thede.

Zimmerman’s coaching style, which focuses on excellence in both running and in character, has helped build a program that has its priorities right, said Brooks.

“His runners first find their identity in Christ,” she said, “and then they run fast.”