The most talented true freshman in the Boise State athletic department isn’t the star quarterback of the football team.
Or the rising young point guard on the men’s basketball team.
It’s Allie Ostrander, the diminutive cross country runner who already has national and world championships on her resume.
Ostrander chose Boise State over Oregon and Arkansas — the equivalent of a football player picking the Broncos over USC and Alabama.
“I told her during the process: ‘The hardest decision you’re going to make is to tell people you’re coming to Boise State because everybody expects the opposite,’ ” Boise State track and cross country coach Corey Ihmels said. “ ‘It’s going to be hard because people are going to second-guess you and they’re going to tell you you’re crazy.’
“To me, that speaks volumes that she was able to make that decision as an 18-year-old. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.”
Ostrander already was a unique story in the running world. She is from Kenai, Alaska, which is on a peninsula southwest of Anchorage. She generated recruiting buzz when she started competing in the Lower 48 after her junior cross country season. The interest intensified when she was featured in a video series on Flotrack.org and won the Nike Cross Nationals last December in Portland.
Since arriving at Boise State, she has finished first in a meet in San Francisco, second in Minnesota (out of 243 runners) and first in an elite meet Friday in Wisconsin (with a course record of 19 minutes, 19.5 seconds, breaking the mark set by a seven-time NCAA champion). She helped the Broncos place first as a team in the San Francisco and Minnesota meets to build a No. 6 national ranking.
She also became the second American woman to win the World Junior Mountain Running Championship in September in Wales.
“It feels good to be off to a good start,” she said, “but I still feel like I haven’t quite proven myself and have more work to do.”
Ostrander began running because her parents and older sister enjoyed the sport. She trained with the middle school team when her sister Taylor, who is 2 1/2 years older, started there. Taylor is a senior at Willamette in Oregon, where she is the defending Northwest Conference champion in cross country.
Ostrander also competed in basketball, soccer and cross-country skiing growing up.
“Running is a really mentally challenging sport, and that appeals to me because I really believe someone can be anyone they want to be if they work hard enough for it,” she said. “I love that it requires a lot of hard work and dedication. There’s not anyone else you can rely on to do that for you. Your coaches will help you, tell you what you need to do, and your teammates will support you. But in the end, it’s on you.”
Ostrander chose Boise State because of the support system. She also visited Fayetteville, Ark., nicknamed the “Track Capital of the World” because of the dozens of national titles won by the Razorbacks, and Eugene, Ore., which has become the nation’s track epicenter.
Ihmels helped Emma Bates win the 2014 NCAA championship in the outdoor 10,000 meters, and Bates and Marisa Howard post national runner-up finishes in distance events in his first two years at Boise State. During his previous six-year stint at Iowa State, he coached seven national champions and nine runners-up.
He has been particularly successful coaching women’s distance runners.
“I really liked the sounds of their program and what their vision was for how they wanted to train their athletes and develop their team,” Ostrander said. “... I had a lot of confidence in them in their ability to get me to my potential, and I also really loved the team atmosphere as well as the town.”
Ihmels could relate to Ostrander during the recruiting process because he grew up in North Dakota before becoming an All-American distance runner at Iowa State. His goal was to get a home visit.
“Probably from the start, I thought maybe she was just being nice to us,” he said.
But as he got to know Ostrander and her goals, it became clear that she knew what she wanted and how she wanted to get there. Ihmels remembers seeing a photo in the house of Ostrander competing in that national race in Portland.
“She’s got this tenacious look on her face as she’s crossing the finish line to win,” he said. “I can’t coach that. You either have that or you don’t. That’s just something that comes from within. ... She wants to be a national champion. She wants to go to the Olympics. And we’ve had kids do that. She was looking for that.”