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No. 2 ISU Cross Country Team Faces National Test Saturday

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AMES, Iowa The Iowa State women's cross country team will field a legitimate individual national title contender in Saturday's NCAA Championships at Louisville, Ky.

Or two.

And one of them is former Xavier prep Meaghan Nelson.

Paired with Midwest Regional winner Betsy Saina, Nelson is poised to help the Cyclones push the pace, running with the knowledge that the sky's the limit and the ultimate prize is not only in sight, but within reach.

"It just seems weird to be in contention to win a national title," said Nelson, a senior who finished fourth in the 10-kilometer race at last summer's NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. "A little strange."

But not unexpected for Nelson, Saina and the rest of the No. 2 Cyclones, which seek their first NCAA-sanctioned women's cross country crown after finishing seventh last season.

"You work as individuals but your goals are for the group and for the team to serve a higher purpose," said Nelson, who finished second to Saina in the Big 12 Championships in a time of 20:10.2. "I can't remember us ever really talking about individual goals. It's never about, 'Oh, I want to be all-region or all-conference.'"

Unsurprisingly, though, she and Saina achieved both individual honors.

Nelson has gone from what she once termed "not particularly awesome" in high school to an elite competitor who took part in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Saina is her frequent training partner and happily noted Nelson's progress from a distance, then at an elbow's length.

"She never gives up," said Saina, who placed sixth in the Kenyan Olympic Trials. "She just keeps working at it. To be as good as she is right now, I'm so excited in how she's doing."

Saina saw it coming starting with how Nelson approached her training after missing the 2009-10 cross country season because of injury.

"We started racing together and doing the workouts together and I was like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Saina said. "'Meaghan is catching up very well.' ... It wasn't the same Meaghan. A big change."

Saina set a swift example, as did many who came before her such as four-time NCAA champion and Olympian Lisa (Koll) Uhl, who has made Ames her training base again.

"Betsy's really great to train with," Nelson said. "I joke about how she kicks my butt, but she's a really good partner to have, really good to work with and so supportive. She's so much for the group. It's not what you would expect out of someone of that caliber."

That group's high caliber, too.

The goal of winning a national championship was set in preseason camp and here they are with Saina and Nelson leading the way.

"I think everyone on the team is a believer now," Nelson said. "We're excited about it and ready to roll."