NAMPA - Distance standout Emma Bates is both the defending champion and the underdog in Saturday's 3,000-meter race at the Mountain West Indoor Track & Field Championships.
Bates, whose Mountain West title a year ago sparked her emergence, will face New Mexico's Josephine Moultrie, whose season-best time is 7 seconds faster than hers.
The same two runners are the top seeds in the mile, too, where Moultrie holds a nearly identical advantage.
"I'm excited to race her," Bates said. "It definitely pushes you. It almost makes it a little easier because there's someone there working with you."
The stiff competition could help Bates qualify for the NCAA meet. She's 19th in the nation in the 3,000 and the top 16 qualify. Moultrie is ninth.
"It will be good competition for Emma," Boise State distance coach Brad Wick said, "but I think she's up for the challenge."
Bates has proven that for the past year. She set a school record while winning the Mountain West indoor 3,000 last year, won the Mountain West outdoor 5,000 championship and earned NCAA second-team All-America honors with a 12th-place finish in the 5,000 at the outdoor nationals.
This season, she has broken her school record in the indoor 3,000, set the record in the indoor mile and run the second-fastest indoor 800 in school history. She also holds the record in the outdoor 5,000.
"She got rolling in indoors (last year) and was just on fire all of last year outdoors," Wick said. " She's extremely dedicated and just very competitive."
And Bates still has a long career in front of her.
She is a junior in indoor track but last year was her first season outdoors. She'll be a sophomore outdoors this spring and a junior in cross country next fall.
That gives her until 2015 to reach her ultimate goal: a national title.
Bates' times have consistently improved in the past year, Wick said, as her training volume has increased.
"It starts snowballing," he said. "She still is just getting there. She still has a lot left."
Wick recruited Bates to Boise State out of his hometown - Elk River, Minn. Wick, who competed at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, coached a summer track program in Elk River for six years and was an assistant coach at Minnesota before coming to Boise State.
He met Bates when she was a seventh-grader and first-time track participant. They had the same high school coach.
"He was a big deal in high school," Bates said. "My coach always talked about him. He's kind of a legend back home."
Minnesota also recruited Bates, but she liked the idea of Boise's warmer winters and smaller roster.
"I wanted a little more coaching attention," she said. "I think that's helped."
She called last year's Mountain West title "a turning point." She has learned to relax and have fun on race day - conquering the nerves that can affect performance.
Her plan for Saturday is straightforward. "Just go out and try to push the pace," she said.
FROM HOOPS TO JUMPS
Heather Pilcher was a four-year starter for the Boise State women's basketball team. When her career ended, she still had a year of college eligibility to use in another sport.
Assistant track and field coach Jeff Petersmeyer suggested the long jump. On Friday, Pilcher finished second in her first Mountain West indoor meet with a personal-best 19 feet, 6 inches.
Pilcher competed in two outdoor meets last season, placing 11th in the Mountain West. She earned her degree in December and will compete in her first full outdoor season this spring.
Track was her first sport - in elementary school - but she only competed for a year in high school.
"(This) got me back to my first love," she said. " I'd think about it all the time. I never thought I'd have another chance."
NOTES: Boise State's Roderick Townsend set a personal best in the heptathlon and finished third. Boise State's Marissa VanderMalle used a strong push on the final straightaway to finish second in the 5,000. Boise State is fifth in the men's team standings (25 points) and seventh in the women's standings (22.33) with most finals set for Saturday (11 a.m.-4 p.m.). The San Diego State women (56) and New Mexico men (53) lead.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat