COLUMBIA — Ellen Ries used to be known as the mother hen of the Missouri cross country team because of the way she took her teammates under her wing. Freshman Bailey Belvis used the word "crucial" to describe the impact of Ries' leadership on her development as a runner.
The team jokingly calls her "grandma" — she's a 22-year-old fifth-year senior in her final season as a cross country runner. With Ries as a guiding voice in practice and a high-profile meet coming up, the team will be looking to improve upon the strides it has already made.
The A.L. Gustin Golf Course in Columbia will host Saturday's Big 12 Conference meet for the second time in school history. A combination of strong senior leadership and a motivated group of freshmen gives Missouri a chance to contend with the best teams in the Big 12.
"I told the entire team at the beginning of the season that this team is the team I've been most excited about since I've been at Mizzou," Ries said. "Everyone seems to bring their own personality into things, and everyone gets along really well."
Emily Baker, a senior, said she believes their team has the focus it needs to compete with conference opponents.
"It's more of team effort right now," Baker said. "We're more on a mission this year. One of our goals is to pack-run — get some girls in a group and stick together throughout the race. We're pretty focused right now."
When it comes to completing their workouts, Ries feels that an individual's hard work can be contagious to teammates who might need an extra push during practice.
"It's really nice to be able to look around, think about all the other girls that are working their butts off and think, 'I can do this, too,'" Ries said. "We've got a lot more girls in workouts that are able to lead and push one another, and it's led to more successful workouts and races."
The competitive workouts have already paid dividends for freshmen Katie Vanatta and Belvis. Vanatta finished first in the Missouri Cross Country Invitational in September and was the top female runner for Missouri at last Saturday's Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival.
Belvis finished first in the Saluki Early Bird Invite to start the year and has followed her performance with a third-place finish in the Missouri Cross Country Challenge. In the Greater Louisville Cross Country Classic, Belvis was the top runner for Missouri and finished eighth overall.
"I love running," Belvis said. "If I've had a long day of classes, going to practice lets me release that stress."
"We have three really good freshmen that are able to contribute," Ries added. "We've really tried to prepare the younger girls for the conference meet so they're not surprised when we get there."
Mental preparation in particular could make or break Missouri's chances Saturday.
"There's always an energy at the Big 12 meet that is so exciting," Ries said. "But I've learned you need to stay even keel emotionally."