By Brenna Cisler
On Saturday, October 30th 2021, the St. Norbert College Women’s Cross Country team took home the title of the 2021 Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC) Champions, making this the 9th time that the team has won a Conference Championship meet. In addition to this incredible win, our very own Joyana Tarsa ‘22 placed first overall in the 3.72 mile long competition, finishing ahead of the 93 other competitors in the race, and taking home the title of the NACC’s Runner of the Year. This incredible feat makes her just the fourth St. Norbert College athlete to individually win the Women’s Cross Country Conference championship, only behind Julie Deyo ‘02, Jenny Scherer ‘12, and her own sister, Graceanne Tarsa ‘19. In addition to Tarsa’s remarkable athletic contributions to the team, however, she has also been an exceptional leader to her team, inside and outside of practice, and has become someone whom they look up to, not just athletically, but also personally.
When asked how Tarsa has contributed to the team this year, fellow senior team captain, Alex Bruley ‘22, shared, “She’s very talented, and talent is an obvious thing, especially in sports. I think that when you have an athlete who is both talented and a good leader – she’s very mature, she’s very humble, she knows how to lead from the top down – I think that all those qualities combined make her have the best impact that she possibly can. It’s not just the fact that she’s a good runner, or the fact that she knows how to talk to people or how to connect with people, it’s all those things combined that really makes her the great person that she is. She has always, even coming in as a freshman, been a top runner, been in the top 5, so she’s always been able to contribute in that way. Also, she’s just such a humble person that it’s hard not to look up to her. She has all this success, but she’s not one to brag about it, or force people to look up to her, or expect anything from anyone. She just has a very strong, quiet presence that not only helps out the team athletically, but also helps everyone look up to her and want to be like the kind of individual that she is.” Along the same lines, when asked if she sees Tarsa as a role model, freshman Veronika Colon Torres ‘25, remarked, “Yes, because her energy is just very positive. She is just so nice that you just, like, want to be her,” she laughs, “Also, the way she puts her effort into her training – it’s just insane.” In response to the same question, fellow freshman Natalie Drane ‘25, added, “Definitely. I had a girl on my team in high school who was so much faster than everyone else and just kind of did her own thing, but Joyana is a leader in the sense that, even though she is the fastest on the team, she still makes time to run with people. Coming from being the slowest one on the team, she still will run with me at my pace, which is really cool. She also made the whole transition coming to school easier because she was invested in getting to know you – rather than who you are as just a runner.” Faith Mertzig ‘24, when commenting on Joyana’s contributions to the team, echoed, “Joyana has contributed to the team obviously with her athletic talent, but also by being a great role model and always helping out the freshmen on the team. She has also been there for the team beyond the sport, helping foster a deeper friendship that contributed to the team’s success. Joyana strikes the perfect balance of humility and confidence that makes her the perfect leader of the team. Some people might let their success get to their head, but Joyana never lets it separate her from the team. It never feels like she is above everyone, but rather she uses her skill to be a great example and takes the leadership opportunities it provides in stride, stepping up to the responsibility and challenge that comes with the pressure of performing well.” Even though Graceanne Tarsa was not on the team this year, since she is Joyana Tarsa’s older sister and knows her better than most, she weighed in on the qualities that she sees in her sister that make her the amazing leader and person that she is: “She’s just so chill and personable and she’s fun to be around because she’s not going to be stressing about anything. She’s not worried about what’s going on, she’s just very much in the moment – which makes it annoying to make travel plans with her,” she laughs, “but it makes her a great leader and definitely a great role model. She’s a really optimistic person, she’s had some struggles with the sport, but every race, she’s like, ‘I feel good, I’m going to go out there and do my best’ and she doesn’t let the fear of not feeling good at the end of the race deter her. She’s super positive about it and always looking to go and is like, ‘I’m going to learn from this and move onto the next race.’ And she’s also just really funny! She doesn’t even try to be, but she just says stuff all the time that is hilarious and I think that that mix of confidence and optimism, but also just the fun, chill person to be around, just make her a really great leader and a really great role model.” Head Coach of the Men’s and Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, Coach Augustine, echoed the sentiment by saying that, “I think she’s a genuine person and people know that, so when she’s doing stuff, it’s not superficial. It’s not ‘I’m going to try to connect with these people because they can help me do this.’ They realize that she genuinely wants to get to know them, wants to learn about them. It definitely doesn’t hurt that there’s some athleticism to go with it, but it’s easy sometimes for better athletes to kind of get caught up in doing their own thing and not care so much about the other people on the team. That’s where she’s different because, in some ways, she may never see these people again, and I would hope that, what she got from her experience the last three years, I hope in the back of her mind, connecting with these freshmen was kind of her gift back to us. Kind of like ‘Alright, I’m going to instill everything I can in them so that when I’m gone, there’s three more years coming up and this is what the expectations are and I’ve done my best to instill that in others.’” Hearing from Tarsa herself about how she approached her new leadership role as one of two senior captains on the team this year, Tarsa responded, “I remember in the beginning, before practice even started, Coach Augustine was talking to Alex and I, and he said that, ‘going into this season, don’t try to be authoritative and don’t try to impose your authority. Just be a leader in a way that you are experienced and you know what is going on. You can welcome in these new freshmen, and you can help bond the team, and through that, and through our work ethic, that will gain respect. It’s not something that we have to impose explicitly.’ I feel like that was really good to hear just because I feel like that is the mindset that I went in with. So my goal was to be, obviously always friendly with everyone, but welcoming for the freshmen because that’s obviously so important, especially in the beginning. I feel like just showing through example and doing the little things with the team, like going to meals together – that was such a solid bonding time for everyone – and being responsive and available for anyone whenever they needed anything. I feel like the biggest thing was going into the season relaxed and wanting to enjoy it and wanting to build relationships.”
Since winning the Cross Country Conference meet is something that only four St. Norbert College women have achieved, one might wonder how it feels to cross that finish line first. On how it felt to cross the finish line at Conference, knowing that she had just won the entire race, Tarsa remembered, “It was really exciting! I remember when I had about one kilometer left to go in that race: I was feeling good, but I was feeling tired, and you just never know what’s gonna happen at the end of a race, and I wasn’t sure where everyone else fell in the race. So I remember that that was just a moment of unsuredness. And then, when I crossed the finish line in first, it was really exciting. I feel like I went into the meet knowing that I could do it, but again, you just never know. I feel like the best part, though, was after the whole team had crossed the line honestly. It was exciting to cross the line first, but it was more exciting when everyone was across because then you had that full team energy of it.” Since Bruley has been one of Tarsa’s best friends since their freshman year on the team together, it seemed only natural to ask how it felt to find out that her best friend had just won the most important meet of the year, “She always puts in the work, so I don’t think it came as a shock, but it was certainly something that’s so incredibly great to hear. I think she’s definitely earned it and it’s good to see Joyana get what she’s worked for. Since there was only Joyana, two other girls, and me near the front, I was keeping sights on them and Joyana the whole time, so at mile two or three, when she just took off, I was thinking, ‘Yeah! Go get ‘em!’” she laughs, “I didn’t see her cross the finish line, but based off of where everyone else was, and since the girl has a crazy good kick at the end, I knew that the other two were not going to catch her. It was totally expected, but still so incredible to hear.” Graceanne Tarsa described the feeling of finding out that her younger sister had essentially followed in her footsteps and won the Cross Country Conference Championship meet like she did three years ago by commenting, “I was just pumped for her! You know, being a teammate of hers, she’s had her ups and downs with the sport. It was so cool to see her come out on top and prevail through that. She works so hard and I was just pumped for her that she was able to have such a great race. I hadn’t been following the stats too much this season, but we had talked after she ran at a different meet, and I definitely thought that she had the physical capability and enough confidence to win Conference; I was just hoping that her body would let her.” Reflecting on how it felt to watch Joyana during the Conference race, fighting her battles, and then finally cross the finish line, taking first place at Conference, Coach Augustine said, “I had basically decided to stay over by the start and the finish line, so for 2,000 meters of the race, I didn’t see them until a mile left, and at that point, you have no idea what’s happening. I think her and Alex were in that top five group when they passed me the first time, so to see Joyana leading after they came back, and there was a mile to go, it was really a cool feeling – I don’t want to say surprised, but you are just elated.” Along the same lines, Coach Krug added, “I was definitely tearing up that entire last kilometer (0.62 miles), watching her pull away and then telling her, ‘Hey, you’re gaining ground between you and the next girl,’ and Joyana said afterwards that it was just crazy for her to hear that.”
Although it is amazing to have a member of the team place first in the entire race, the ultimate goal is always for the team to win the Conference championship. On how it felt when she found out that the entire team had won Conference, Tarsa shared, “That was really exciting!” she beamed, “I remember that I had been talking to some alumni that were there right after the race and they mentioned that, from their count, that we had taken first, and that was really exciting because we had gone in knowing that we could do it, but obviously it’s not a given. And then I remember that the rest of the girls’ team was all on the other side of the shoot, so I walked over to them and, literally, as soon as we saw each other, it was like a run-and-hug-moment and – oh my gosh! – it’s literally such a good memory!” she recalls. “Yes, it was exciting because I had gotten an individual win, but it was so exciting because the team had gotten the win, so everyone had something to celebrate. That was really such positive team energy – it was amazing! That moment was such a culmination of the team that we had built up; it was such a demonstration of how close our team was and I think that was really cool. That was 100% the best part of the day.” Similarly, when Bruley shared her memory of finding out that the team had won, she reflected, “I was just ecstatic. It wasn’t a given that we were going to win. It all comes down to the top five runners and, Joyana and I do what we can, but we can’t make up a whole bunch of points where we are because there’s not a lot of people running, and I think that it was incredibly great to see Bonnie Raechal, and especially Lauren. Lauren picked up so many people, so much time in that race, and I remember telling myself in the middle of the season, ‘oh I won’t be that sad when the cross country season ends because we’ll still have track and track is my favorite between the two,’ but I remember crossing the line and then watching Lauren come through and crossing the line and absolutely knowing that we crushed it. I am not the most emotional person,” she laughs, “and she’s also not the most emotional person, but we literally just ran into each other’s arms and just balled for a minute. As we were crying, I was thinking ‘Dang, Alex, you told yourself you wouldn’t cry during this moment,’” she jokes, “but it was just something that was so unique and such a proud moment. Coming here as freshmen, we won Conference, and then we got 4th place our sophomore year and then we didn’t even get to run our junior year, so coming back and kind of closing out the legacy of our grade was really great. It was so inspiring – such a proud moment!” Being members of the team and having a direct impact on the outcome of the team score is one thing, but being a coach and watching it all – the training all season, the entire Conference race, the celebration afterwards – is another thing. Commenting on how it felt, as the coach, to watch the women’s team win the Conference Championship this year, Coach Augustine said, “I was really proud. It was not a sure thing. I think there have been some years where it would have almost been disappointing if you didn’t win and I don’t think, going into this season, it was like ‘oh we’re definitely going to win Conference.’ I knew we had an opportunity, but I knew we had to have a lot of things come together. I was definitely proud of the effort that the girls put in all year to give themselves that opportunity.”
It is easy to see how Tarsa has grown as an athlete over her years here at St. Norbert College: she went from placing 26th at Conference her freshman year and 38th her sophomore year to finally placing 1st in her senior year. As anyone who has made it through the St. Norbert Cross Country and Track and Field programs here knows, however, one benefits from exponential personal growth as well throughout their years on the team. Commenting on the growth that she has seen in herself during her time here, Tarsa explains, “First of all, it’s obviously been a huge part of my college experience and, I mean, not that I needed the discipline,” she laughs, “but it, you know, it gives you a level of discipline by having to be at every practice and be at every lift. I also think it has really allowed me to grow in the ability to form relationships just because it is such a social outlet and you’re always – especially even going from cross country and then into the big track team – I feel like you’re always growing in relationships and I feel like that is huge just as a confidence builder. I can see my growth through the four years as a leader, and I feel like even though I am an RA and a TA, I see that leadership in myself most in athletics. Maybe it’s just because we spend so much time being athletes and with the team, but it’s just given me an opportunity to grow as a leader and I think that that’s because I have been through four seasons now.” As her freshman and sophomore year roommate, it was interesting to hear Bruley’s thoughts when posed the question of how she has seen Tarsa grow throughout the years, “I don’t think that her character has changed all that much. It’s really been cool to get to see her progress, but still keep the same character that she’s had since freshman year. She’s always been very down to earth, she’s always been very kind, she’s a lighthearted presence on the team. The only thing that I think that would have possibly changed is that now she knows that people look up to her.” Similarly, Coach Augustine echoed the boost in confidence over the years with, “I think she’s definitely gained confidence in her own abilities which have led to some of the success she’s having now. I think the indoor season that she had in 2020 where she won a Conference Championship in the mile and the 800m really gave her a different level of confidence, and ever since then, she has just kind of taken that next step.” Along the same lines, also noting a growth in confidence from her younger sister, Graceanne Tarsa reflected, “I think the biggest thing in her growth is just her confidence level in herself and in her trust in the program and being able to go out and trust her training enough and trust her coaches enough that she’s confident in her ability to run fast. Running a PR is – not an expectation – but it’s not scary for her. She knows she is able to run a PR when she goes out and she knows she can win races. Because that’s a little bit scary, you have to really trust in your ability and trust in your coaches and trust in your training and I think that she’s grown in that way.”
As anyone on the team would likely confirm, Tarsa is more than just an exceptionally fast teammate – she is an exceptionally caring friend as well. Faith Mertzig ‘24 commented on Tarsa being more than a teammate, “Joyana is a great teammate, friend, and overall human being. She is a true asset to the SNC Women’s Cross Country and Track teams.” Similarly, on sharing a time when Tarsa was more than a teammate, Colon Torres explains, “There was one time I was not feeling okay. I was very lonely because I haven’t been able to go home to Arizona in a long time and she listened to me, she talked to me, she was just – more than a friend – more like a sister. And it was really nice. She was just very supportive and then she walked me to my class that day. Then days after she was always checking on me and asking, ‘Is everything good? Do you want to talk about it?’” When asked the same question, Drane replied, “One thing that comes to mind is the Eau Claire meet when everyone was not doing so well. She didn’t have a good race either, but she still made her rounds and was still so happy for you if you had a good race and was there for you if you didn’t. I also remember the first day of practice, when we had a two mile time trial, I was shocked at the fact that she knew all the freshman’s names and was cheering for us. I was like ‘I don’t even know who this girl is – what’s her name again?’ She took ownership and knew everyone’s name before they had the opportunity to know her.”
In order to win a team championship, obviously putting in hard work at practices, getting up early for lifting workouts, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are a must. But one thing that Coach Augustine also prioritizes, and sees as the difference between winning as a team and losing as a team, is how the team gets along with one another and how strong the relationships on the team are. Before classes even started this year, when the team had only known each other for a few days, Coach told the women’s team that he had a feeling that this group would become close. When asked why he had this feeling after only seeing the team interact for a few days, he replied, “I spent a lot of time talking with the freshmen and getting to meet families and stuff like that, so we had a good sense of the freshmen group: good kids who buy into what we do. Having that combination – having a big freshman group who made up half of the team and having some seniors that were going to be able to kind of tie the other 5 or 6 athletes together. That’s what I felt good about. I think the team reaffirmed it at that meet at Eau Claire. The fact that Lauren Talabac stood there at the medical tent with Veronika after she passed out, for an hour, an hour and a half – I honestly felt like, at that moment, we were close enough as a team that we could win Conference.” Additionally, when asked how important team chemistry and team bonding are to winning Conference and being a successful team, he responded, “I think you do as many things as you can when the time permits to show that it is important to you and then you hope you get help, you know, you hope that the senior group buys into it as well and does some of that stuff on their own once you’re separated from them. To quote Coach LeCaptain,’You can’t win a team title by yourself.’ That’s true of Cross Country and it’s true in Track and Field. When things get hard in a race, if there’s not other people that you’re pushing through those tough times for, you won’t be nearly as successful as you would be If there are people that you actually care about.” Similarly, on whether or not she believes that doing activities outside of practice with the team contributed to winning Conference, Tarsa explained, “Yes, I do think it did play a role. I go back to the excitement of everyone after finishing the Conference race and I don’t think you would have that level of excitement if you didn’t work at something for a whole season with people that you were so close to. I just feel like you’re winning something with people who you care about, it makes it all the more special.” She added, “I think when you just spend time with your team during obligated practices and obligated competition, yes, you enjoy being around each other, but that’s where it ends. Whereas when you’re with each other outside of practice, it demonstrates a level of care and a level of interest in each other’s lives because you’re willing to spend time with everyone even when you don’t have to.”
Because the team was exceptionally close this year, many amazing memories were created this season. Reflecting on her favorite memory from this season, Tarsa recalled, “Honestly I think that moment at Conference where everyone was celebrating was my favorite moment. I feel like Tuesday practices were always fun because we were always laughing while we were stretching – that was always a good time. Jumping in the lake at Concordia after the meet – that was so fun! It was just such a spontaneous and good little adventure for everyone!” Remarking on her favorite memory of Tarsa this season, Drane commented, “I remember specifically after we won the Conference meet, she waited for me at the end of the race even though I was the last one to cross the finish line. Then everyone was so excited and I remember that she was so excited that she was giving me a hug and then just picked me up off the ground and I was like, ‘How do you have the energy for this? You just won the whole thing. I’m dead.’” she laughs. Remarking on her favorite memory of Tarsa, Colon Torres beamed, “You know what’s very funny?! Something we do a lot is, whenever I sing a song, Joyana finishes it! It’s super funny! So I pick a random song out of nowhere and I just start singing it and she just finishes the song and we just vibe and start dancing! It’s a weird, like, 5 seconds, but we do it all the time!” she laughs. To wrap up memories from the year, remembering a text that he received the morning after the Conference Championship, Coach Augustine recalls, “This is a text message from Tim Bald, the Athletic Director that just retired, and this was from the Sunday after Conference. He wrote: “On another note, I imagine most athletes, after winning the Conference title, would have been partying it up last night. But the NACC’s Runner of the Year was at the 8:15 AM mass this morning at Our Lady of Lourdes. When I turned around for the sign of peace, there was Joyana. I guess I should not be surprised.””
Through her contributions to the team as a top athlete, strong leader, supportive teammate, and caring friend, Joyana Tarsa has made many positive impacts on the lives of her teammates, coaches, and all around her and will leave a lasting legacy and high expectations for all who come after her. With her leadership, along with the leadership of all of the other seniors on the team, as well as the positive environment that she and everyone else on the team cultivated, Tarsa was able to become the fourth St. Norbert College woman to win an individual Conference championship, and the St. Norbert College Women’s Cross Country team was able to take home the title of the 2021 Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference Champions.