Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The way Dominique Scott humbly tells her story, she would have you believe that she is the Eliza Doolittle of runners with Arkansas women’s cross country coach Lance Harter playing the role of Henry Higgins, shaping and molding her into what she has become.
However, Harter believes the senior from Cape Town, South Africa, fails to take enough credit for building herself into one of the favorites in Saturday’s 10 a.m. NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championships at Louisville after an inauspicious freshman season.
Scott, who finished sixth at nationals last season, is expected to vie for the individual title along with fellow senior Molly Seidel of Notre Dame and freshman Allie Ostrander of Boise State. Harter has had several runners finish second at nationals during his 26 season as Arkansas’ women’s cross country coach, but no female Razorback has brought an individual national title back to Fayetteville.
Scott knows the history of Arkansas’ storied program, and there is nothing more she would like to do for Harter, her teammates and herself than cross the finish line first.
“To be able to win a cross country national title for the Razorbacks would be really cool,” Scott said with her lilting South African accent. “It would be putting the Razorback name down in the history books. Doing it for Coach Harter would be really cool.”
A win by Scott would be a coupe for Arkansas’ program, but Harter is attempting to keep the pressure off her.
“We’ve never had a winner,” Harter said. “We’ve had a second-place finisher a bunch of times, and we’ve had some great athletes get second place. She is in position to win. It would be a great honor for her and the Razorbacks, but she just needs to run her race.”
Scott’s respect for Harter’s knowledge of the sport is evident, but the coach and runner formed a bond early in her career that goes beyond technique and training plans. Harter showed faith in her ability when she was questioning herself most.
A sought-after recruit, Scott admittedly underachieved based on her own expectations during her freshman cross-country season. Her 41st-place finish in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Cross Country Championships left her more than a little distraught.
“He could have very easily taken away my scholarship after that semester and sent me back to South Africa,” Scott said. “But he saw something in me and continued to push me and got me to where I am today. After my freshman year, I never really thought that I would become an All-American. But now to be a two-time All-American going for the national title is something I’m really proud of.”
Harter chuckled when he heard that Scott had feared for her scholarship, but he said that only points to the runner’s character and dedication.
“No, no, [pulling her scholarship] was never a consideration,” Harter said. “I will say her freshman cross country season was a little disappointing based on expectations, but maybe my expectations were out of whack. Maybe I thought she was going to come right in and re-invent the wheel, but she adjusted like every other freshman and probably had more to adjust to than most, coming from as far away as she did. The change of hemispheres is big. The Southern Hemisphere runs cross country in a much different season than we do. That could have been startling. It was an average first year.”
Photo : Robert Black, courtesy UA Athletics
Scott admitted that fearing for her scholarship might have been a bit hyperbolic, but her disappointment with her finish in that race served as fuel to push her to the heights she has reached as a Razorback.
“I was 41st, and there was only about 50 people in the race,” Scott said. “I don’t think there were too many people behind me. All my freshman classmates were in front of me. It definitely was not a great performance. I did bounce back the next week and finished around 11th at the Regional meet. The SEC Championships of my freshman year were definitely a down point or a low race of mine. I had to keep my head up and keep working. My freshman year was a lot of adjusting to the American way of life and the college environment and the training.”
Scott explained that she knew it was a privilege to compete on an athletic scholarship and that she did not want to let Harter, her teammates or the university down.
“I mean as a freshman you definitely want to earn your spot on the team and be worthy of your scholarship,” Scott said. “Coach Harter had given me a full scholarship to come attend university in the States. It’s obviously a lot of money and there are a lot of athletes all over the world that are running fast and are worthy of some type of scholarship.
“I definitely wanted to make sure that I earned my scholarship. I think my freshman outdoor season when I scored in both the 5K and the 10K at the SEC Championships at LSU is where I kind of made my mark and showed that I was worthy of a scholarship.”
Harter said Scott’s freshman indoor track season was also a struggle, but then she began to gain momentum during the outdoor season.
“I think the training part of the program really started working for her,” Harter said. “It’s an adjustment. I remember vividly at Stanford during the outdoor season, we made a last-minute switch to jump her into a different event, and she ended up running really well because she had no mental bearings on how to run a 10,000. She ended up proving she was a lot stronger than she thought she was, and a lot more competitive than she thought she was. It was kind of a big mental step when she learned that she could handle competing at that level. She really took off. The rest is history.”
While Scott’s career started slower than she or Harter expected, he said overall he believes she has exceeded expectations because of how dramatically she has improved each year.
“For her to run so dominant last year, it was so fun to be a part of that ride and see how much she had improved and how her work paid off,” Harter said.
Relationships between coaches and athletes are often businesslike, but Harter’s influence on Scott has been more profound.
“I tell everyone, he’s been like my USA dad here in the states,” said Scott, who has already graduated from the UA with a degree in marketing with a minor in logistics. “On and off the track, he’s been so supportive of me. We’ve really formed a bond and a relationship that’s helped me succeed and made me into the athlete that I am today.”
That bond began on her recruiting visit to Arkansas when Harter showed her a detailed plan for her athletic development and showed her how other athletes had made strides while competing for the Razorbacks.
“I think one of the big things was that on my recruiting trip is that Coach Harter sat me down and showed me times that athletes had coming into the program from high school, and then showed me what their best times were leaving the Razorbacks program, and the difference was so big,” Scott said. “It was really impressive what Coach Harter had done with the Lady Razorbacks. I wanted to be one of those girls who had improved dramatically. From the data, it showed that I could do that in this program.”
Talent is always a prerequisite in recruiting an athlete, but when offering a scholarship to a person from across the world or from just down the road, Harter wants to make sure a runner’s personality, character and experience is right for his program.
“We look for that individual who is sometimes a little bit under the radar,” Harter said of his program’s recruiting philosophy. “A lot of the super stars that you read about and hear about, they’ve been road hard and put away wet. There’s not much left to develop. In her situation, Dom had great passion and great desire to be great. She had the support mechanism of a family that was going to support her no matter what happened. I had that same philosophy. We’re going to stick with it. If you have the dream, we’re going to stick with it and stick with you. Will it take a year longer than we thought? So be it. But now the momentum is snowballing in a great direction.”
Photo : Robert Black, courtesy UA Athletics
Harter said Scott’s example has been a great help with his young team this season. The other runner’s look to Scott and are encouraged by her example.
“When she says, ‘I’ve been there and I’ve done that, and to stick with the training program because it works,’ her teammates not only hear it but see it. Philosophically, we work to have them be in the right condition and the right time. They see it in Dom, and that makes my coaching job that much easier.”
Scott is looking forward to the challenge of competing for the title, but adds that her career, which will conclude in the spring during outdoor track season, has already been a fantastic experience.
“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself for this weekend.” Scott said. “I feel like my career up until now has been really stellar, and I think anything that happens this weekend will be icing on the cake or a cherry on top.”
Harter believes Scott is as prepared as she can be to spread that icing and place that cherry on top of her cross-country career.
“Dominique is in the conversation as a potential winner,” Harter said. “I think right now the prognosticators have her picked third, but if you are third, you are going to be within striking distance of the win, and I would say that’s true for probably six to 10 individuals. Her training has gone impeccably. She’s confident. Now, it is just a matter of staying focused and realizing her dream. She was sixth last year, and her whole goal has always been to get better. She’s got everything in order to take care of that business.”
Scott said she is treating the six-kilometer race like any other despite the grand implications of a victory.
“When I stand on the start line, my goal is to always score as well as I can for my teammates, but when the gun goes off, it’s about me and taking care of business,” Scott said. “I can’t control what my teammates do throughout the race. I can cheer on the Hogs a couple of times when the race first goes out, but ultimately I have to do what I can do, and hope they are going to take care of their business. It’s the same approach for this race. We will definitely have a few team meetings going into the race to get everyone relaxed and thinking positively. But when the race goes out, we all have to take care of ourselves.”
Scott knows Seidel and Ostrander are considered to be her top competition going into the race, but she is more focused on how she runs than whom she is running against.
“The three of us are supposed to be the top contenders for the national title, but you never know,” Scott said. “Someone else could be feeling really good on the day. I see everyone as fair game. I’m not going to be worried about who the girl is in front of me or who is to the left or the right. Everyone is just another person in the race. Someone could surprise us. I’m definitely not going to underestimate anyone.”
Arkansas’ women’s team is predicted to finish in the top 10, possibly as high as third. New Mexico is such a dominant squad that Harter believes it would be difficult for any program to usurp it this Saturday, but he believes the race is wide open from second through 10th.
“Our team is shaping up well,” Harter said. “All our kids are healthy. All of our goals we talked about early in the season, we’ve been able to achieve, verbatim.
“We’ll have an individualized race plan for each runner,” Harter said. “Obviously, Dom has a very exclusive one. Kaitlin Flattmann and and our super frosh Devin Clark will run as a pair. Then we’ll have a foursome to run together who will try to reinforce each other for the fourth slot. That’s going to dictate your team total whether you win or finish last.”
While Saturday is huge for Scott’s running career, Dec. 22 will be an even bigger day when she weds former Razorback runner Cameron Efurd just outside of Cape Town. Efurd, a commodities trader at Blackhive in Fayetteville, made waves around the collegiate track world when he proposed to Scott on the track at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
“I don’t know where we’re going on the honeymoon, but there will be time to think about that after this weekend,” Scott said.