It was a tumultuous summer for the Oregon track and field program as they lost their men's and women's distance coaches to rival Washington, along with a steady stream of runners who followed them north to Seattle.
After stars Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon traded their green and yellow uniforms for purple and gold, there was concern that their good friend, teammate and training partner Jessica Hull — the Ducks’ only returning NCAA individual champion — would leave the women’s program as well.
As it turned out, she never really gave it much thought.
“I’m just really proud to be a Duck,” said the effervescent 22-year-old senior from Australia. “(Leaving) just didn’t make any sense to me personally. I am very proud to be a part of this program and all that it is. Everyone here has looked after me so well. It’s home away from home essentially.”
Hull’s return has helped boost the Ducks’ cross country team to a No. 4 national ranking and elevated expectations heading into the championship portion of the season, which begins at 11:10 a.m. Friday with the 6,000-meter Pac-12 championship race at Stanford Golf Course that will broadcast live on the Pac-12 Networks.
Hull, who won the 1,500 title at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships last June, is having the best cross country season of her career.
Her six-second victory at the Pre-Nationals Invitational in Madison, Wis., two weeks ago proved her fitness is already at a high level with a month to go in the season.
“I felt pretty strong and that’s definitely not something I’ve felt in cross country before,” Hull said of her Pre-Nats race, the first cross country win of her career. “I’ve never really raced to reflect the work that I’ve been doing outside of racing day. … I would like to hopefully race to that potential.”
That’s what she did last spring on the track, winning her first Pac-12 title in May and then dominating at the NCAA Outdoor meet where she claimed a convincing victory in the 1,500 while running a personal best 4 minutes, 8.75 seconds — the fastest time by an Oregon runner in 34 years and fourth-fastest all-time.
Two weeks later, her coach, Maurica Powell, was hired to be director of track and field and the women’s coach at Washington
“I couldn’t have done that without her and I’m so thankful for her,” Hull said. “But It was really hard and it was really sad. I had an awesome relationship with Maurica and I can still have that, but it was a shocker and I didn’t see it coming.”
However, she had no doubts about staying at Oregon and coach Robert Johnson said Hull returned “hungry” and “humble." He rewarded that loyalty by giving her a voice during the process of finding a new women’s distance coach.
“(Hull) is someone I leaned heavily on,” Johnson said. “We shared a lot of information there and stayed in contact and I ran and bounced things off of her and she bounced things off of me about things she was looking for and things she thought would be good for the team. She’s kind of my liaison, for lack of a better word, from the student athlete point of view. Lots of good input from her.”
The end result was the hiring of Helen Lehman-Winters, the longtime coach at San Francisco who led the Dons to a second-place finish at the NCAA cross country championship meet in 2017.
“Coach Johnson delivered,” said Hull, who praised Lehman-Winters’ workout regime and individualized training program.
“Helen has added a creative component to everything,” said Hull, later adding, “It’s been very easy to buy in when you come to practice every day and you see how structured and organized and well-thought out everything is.”
Hull’s cross country success this season hasn’t come by accident or just because of new coaching. She has steadily improved throughout her career, going from a 60th-place finish at the Pac-12 meet as a freshman, to 27th as a sophomore and then 11th last season — a progression not so unusual for standout middle-distance runners who spend their falls trying to navigate much longer distances.
“It’s just a smart buildup of volume and consistency in the legs,” Hull said. “Over time it starts to show and you become someone who’s not a one-trick 1,500-meter runner because you’ve got an accumulation of mileage and volume and quality.”
She’ll be up against some familiar faces Friday, including defending Pac-12 champion Dani Jones of Colorado, who redshirted last season in track after winning the 2017 Pac-12 title in the 1,500; Stanford’s Elise Cranny, who finished third to Hull in the NCAA 1,500 last season; and of course, 2017 all-Americans Rainsberger and Burdon, who were the Ducks’ two best cross country runners last season, leading Oregon to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA meet.
“I’m excited to see both of them,” Hull said. “There’s no animosity towards their decision to move … there’s a bond that doesn’t change just because they’re not a Duck anymore.”
That doesn’t mean Hull wants to be staring at the back of their uniforms come Friday.
“You always want to win,” she said. “That’s what drives us all in this crazy sport.”