Eastern Oregon University track and cross country coach Ben Welch didn’t have to search very far to land recruits for the 2018 women’s cross country signing class.

Six of the eight signees, which the school announced last week, are from Oregon. Two are from Union County — La Grande’s Kendra Blake and Union’s Michelle Herbes.

“For starters, they’re excellent students and young ladies,” Welch said of the two local athletes.

Both Herbes and Blake were on state-placing cross country teams last fall as seniors.

Blake was 24th overall in the Class 4A cross country meet for the Tigers last year with a time of 20 minutes, 33 seconds.

“A lot of what I like about her is she’s just a tough competitor,” Welch said. “You can’t really teach that.”

Blake was also a state qualifier in both the 800-meter and 1,500 in the spring in track, and placed eighth in state in both the 400 (1:03.28) and the 800 (2:31.05) in 2017.

The recent LHS graduate said she was already going to attend EOU, but initially was not going to continue her athletic career. But she said Welch encouraged her to join the team.

“He’s talked to me before about running for him. I did think I would stop and just focus on school, but he got to talking to me more,” she said.

Blake said she has seen the success runners have under Welch, and noted she had run at LHS with Welch’s younger
children, Amanda and Bennett.

“I’ve known him a while. I’ve been able to see what he does,” she said.

Herbes was 11th individually with a time of 20:11 in the 3A/2A/1A meet with the Union cross country squad that finished second last fall.

She was also a state-champion 400 runner in track, winning the event in the 2A meet last month in 59.04 seconds, showing her blend of speed and endurance.

“With her it’s just the foot speed. I think she is openly more of a middle distance runner,” Welch said.

Herbes has the best 5K time of the signees, despite running cross country just last fall after previously playing volleyball for Union.

“I decided to switch to cross country because I knew it would help better my chances of getting a college scholarship and it would help me improve in track,” she said. “With last year being my first year I am a little nervous to start competing at the collegiate level and I’m excited to see how much I can improve.”

Welch said Herbes also has the toughness factor, a trait the entirety of the signing class possesses, he said.

They’re also standouts in the classroom, according to the coach.

“They’re smart. The average GPA of the group is 3.84,” he said. “They listen well. They follow instruction well.”

Welch also said the incoming runners are “pretty underdeveloped,” though he said it’s not at all a bad thing.

“That’s actually a good thing. There is a lot of room to grow,” he said speaking specifically of Herbes and Blake, though noting the case is true for all the runners. “They have been well-developed in the areas they have been, but they are ready for the next step.”

Blake said she has already been talking to Welch about the areas she needs to grow in.

“He’s really talked about my strength and trying to get my speed up a little more,” she said.

Herbes added she is looking forward to seeing how she improves in both cross country and track.

“I can’t wait to see how I do. I get to run the 800 and 400 in track which are my two favorite races, and I’m excited to get to know my new teammates and get to compete for another four years,” she said.

The rest of the Oregonians brought in by Welch were Jessica Lee from Lakeview, Dierdre McKay from Portland’s Westview High School, Calista Van Delden from Grants Pass, and Maliah Russell from Cascade.

Idaho runners Katie Jo Gebhardt, from Salmon, and Molly Gulden, from Boise’s Timberline High School, round out the recruiting class.

Gebhardt is the most decorated runner in the group as an eight-time state placer in track and a two-time state champion, three-time top-20 finisher in cross country at the 2A level, according to an EOU press release.

“She had a huge breakthrough this spring on the track. She set her 1,600 and 800 PRs by wide margins,” Welch said. “She dropped a significant amount of time.”

Welch attributed Gebhardt’s success to her toughness, noting she also plays hockey in the winter.

Welch said he revisited a recruiting strategy from about 20-25 years ago that bore a lot of fruit for the EOU program — recruit athletes that run in the 20-minute range in high school, then transform them into solid collegiate runners.

“It’s historically what we’ve built our program on,” he said. “Back in the ‘90s, it was all we recruited — 20-(minute)-flat and 20:30 (runners). The first team we had in the top 10 that we took to nationals, only one run under 20 minutes in high school.”

Six of the eight athletes — Blake, Gebhardt, Gulden, Herbes, McKay and Van Delden — had personal bests in the 5K between 20 and 21 minutes, right in the window Welch was targeting.

“But I also looked for (athletes) in that range that had some foot speed,” he said.