CGA’s Neer, Banfich ready for today’s NCAAs

TERRE HAUTE — One is winding down her college career, the other just getting started.
Both say they are feeling fine, now, following injuries that set them back at the start of the season.
Each chose an Ivy League college to attend, and at an historic conference championship meet a couple weeks ago — run in a driving snowstorm — they finished the race almost side-by-side.
Now, Alex Banfich and Waverly Neer will square off against each other at today’s NCAA cross country championships, on the same course where each made her mark in high school.
The two Culver Girls Academy graduates — who dominated the Indiana high school cross country scene from 2004 through 2010 — are running as individuals in the women’s Division I meet in Terre Haute. Each is seeking a Top 40 finish and the All-America honors that go with it.
Start time is 12:58 p.m. (EST), following the men’s championship race where another Culver Academies alum — Alejandro Arroyo — is also running. That one starts at 12:08.
The meet will be shown live on the Internet at CBS television will broadcast a video of the meet on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, from 1 to 2 p.m.
Banfich and Neer could run the LaVern Gibson Championship Course with their eyes closed. Banfich, a senior at Princeton University, won IHSAA state titles there three times from 2005-2007. Neer, a freshman at Columbia, earned a state title for CGA in 2010. And each has run numerous other races at the site.
“Racing in my home state again will definitely add to my excitement,” says Neer, making her first appearance at an NCAA meet. “My whole family and high school coach (Mike Chastain) will be able to watch me race and cheer me on.”
Ditto for Banfich, who is in her fourth and final trip to the finals and a little sad to see it coming to an end.
“I absolutely love coming home to race,” says the Princeton team leader. “Little things like recognizing the Indianapolis airport and knowing the drive to Terre Haute like the back of my hand are comforting and make the experience more fun. We have also stayed in the same hotel the past four years of college, and incidentally, it’s the same hotel we stayed in when I was in high school.”
Neer’s success is remarkable for the simple fact that she could barely walk six weeks ago. After winning a national championship in the 3,000-meter run at the US Junior Track & Field Championships in June, the Russiaville native started feeling a pain in her hip.
“I was diagnosed with a sacral stress fracture in early September,” said Neer. “ I was having pain there for several weeks and it was preventing me from training. We had an MRI done and it was positive for a fracture. The normal healing time for that kind of injury is 6-8 weeks. Fortunately, the Columbia coaching staff was able to research a specialist in Philadelphia that is very well known in his field. Working with him cut my healing time to about half so I was able to start training in early October.”
Neer’s first competition left much to be desired — a 72nd place finish at a meet in Wisconsin, while Banfich was fourth in the same race. But within two weeks, an accelerated training schedule had her back in the lead pack.
And at the frigid Ivy League championships on Oct. 29, Neer and Banfich found themselves side-by-side with a half-mile to go.
“Of course I knew Waverly was near me,” said Banfich. “Half of me was excited for her because I knew she had an even later start to the season than me, and she was pretty far behind me at Wisconsin. So, I was happy to know that she was back. The other half of me was, of course, loyal to Princeton and I couldn’t help feeling that I had to (beat her) to help my team.”
At the finish, it was Neer who came out on top, placing second while Banfich was third. They were only two seconds apart.
Now, it’s time for the rubber match, so to speak. But the two friends are gunning for a lot more than each other.
“I definitely feel like I’m peaking at the right moment ,” says Banfich. “Tapering and peaking at exactly the right time is something I have struggled with in the past. “Many times, I have had great races in the middle of the season but can’t manage to sustain that level of performance to the end. I really feel that will change this year. I have focused much more carefully on training specifically for this meet, and practice the last few days has felt awesome.”
Banfich, who recovered from a hamstring injury early this season, was 20th at the national meet a year ago. Winning isn’t likely, but it’s not out of the question, either.
And Neer?
“With a week until nationals my legs still feel really fresh,” she said. “Maybe this injury was a blessing in disguise because I haven’t put a considerable amount of miles on my legs. We’ll see.”
Indeed, we will.