Sept. 2, 2004
Tallahassee, FL – Five-time All-American Natalie Hughes (Grand Junction, CO/Palisade) begins her fourth and final season in Garnet and Gold, after three seasons filled with honors and awards, broken school records and the Florida State cross country program’s first NCAA National Championships appearance. One of two seniors in the top seven, Hughes has a reason to feel special – she holds a place in Seminole history as well as in fifth year head coach Bob Braman’s successful coaching career.
Braman has a particular soft spot for Hughes because she was his first recruit after taking the job at Florida State. The 2003 ACC Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year traveled to Hughes’ hometown to watch her compete and was instrumental in getting her to Tallahassee. To Braman, Hughes had a great combination of talent and potential to make her not only a great Seminole runner, but an All-American.
“Watching her the last five years has been exciting,” said Braman. “Coming out of high school, she was talented but not nationally regarded, despite being a Colorado state champion. Then she comes in here and earns All-American honors in her first three years – it’s exciting and makes you really proud.”
Hughes, who was recruited by then-national champion Colorado, decided against staying at home and joining a program with a solid winning foundation. She headed south to warm and sunny Florida to help build a program with a new head coach with a great talent for recruiting top high school and amateur runners.
“When I was in high school, I thought I was fast but my times weren’t that fast,” explained Hughes. “My potential was there and was more than what was shown. Braman saw that and felt that I could help the program get better.”
Her potential showed up immediately, with Hughes making an impact in the Seminoles top seven during her freshman season. The 13-time Colorado high school cross country and track champion scored for the Tribe in all seven meets she ran in, something accomplished by only two other teammates that season. She earned the first of three NCAA All-South Region honors in 2001. As the top freshman at the regional race, Hughes narrowly missed qualifying individually for nationals with her ninth place finish.
Hughes’ success continued through her sophomore campaign with her eighth place finish at the 2002 NCAA South Regional meet helping FSU to second place. Her performance was one of seven that helped secure the Florida State women’s cross country team’s first bid to nationals in the history of the program.
As if her accomplishments during the first two seasons were not enough, Hughes’ junior year was one of the best in her intercollegiate career. She crossed the tape in the top two for FSU in all seven meets. She finished 43rd overall in a collegiate best time of 20:50.1 at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships, despite the weather holding steady at minus three degrees. Her best race came at the NCAA Pre-Nationals meet where she placed 18th in a then-personal best mark of 20:58.5 to lead FSU to a history setting tenth place team finish.
Her junior year capped off a career that, if it ended today, would be one of the best in Florida State cross country history. Hughes is just the third female Tribe member to earn All-American honors in cross country. She joined five-time All-American Vicky Gill as the only female Seminoles to win NCAA All-American honors in both cross country and track. Alongside Gill they swept All-American honors for the 2003-04 season taking accolades in cross country, indoor and outdoor track. Hughes owns the Florida State school records in the indoor mile and the 1500m run as well as the second fastest 6K time in school history.
“Well in cross country (being an All-American) means a lot of pain,” Hughes said, with a laugh. “It’s important to me because it’s something that makes you stronger. I want to be more all-around and balanced – earning the honor on the course as well as the track.”
Heading into the 2004 cross country season, the three-year letter winner in cross country and track and field has high hopes for the women’s squad.
“My expectations are for the team mostly,” said Hughes. “We want to get back to nationals and try to win regionals, despite our team being so young. It’s going to be interesting. We are going to need some people to step up and run well which I think we have the talent to do.”
Hughes has been a part of a culture that’s changed from a middle of the conference and region team to a program that’s been to nationals back-to-back years.
“We’ve gotten more depth obviously,” said Braman. “With Coach Braman coming here and being successful, it’s a tribute to how well he’s done with the program. In just a few short years, we’ve gone from never going to nationals to two consecutive appearances with relatively inexperienced, young teams and I think that’s a tribute to his coaching and recruiting abilities.”
With an already lengthy list of honors on the conference, regional and national levels, Hughes has yet to back down from making individual goals and setting her sights high.
“Individually, my goals are to make the All-American team,” continued Hughes. “I think it’s a high goal but I want to be in the top 20 at nationals.”
Braman believes Hughes can reach that goal and much more. He is depending on her to lead a young, talented group of state champions and national leaders while maintaining her high level of competition. One thing has eluded her for her first three seasons – a national championship.
“This year Natalie is going to have to be everything, not just an All-American,” said Braman. “On the course, she’s going to have to be a big-time leader to all the younger (student-athletes). Show them the ropes and how to get it done – how to become the next Natalie Hughes. She’s got a lot on her plate being one of only two seniors in the top seven.”
Braman has compared some of the newcomers to their state champion predecessor. Hughes is flattered by the compliment but hopes that recruiting the top high school runners in the nation becomes a staple in Tallahassee.
“I think we’re setting a precedence that we need to expect from (every female runner),” said Hughes. “I expect to be one of the first of many in the short future. Coach Braman has done a really good job with raising the level of competition.”
With graduation brimming, Hughes has watched the years go by as if only a few minutes. Once the cross country season ends, she will be closer to a future in the field of education and farther from the young student-athlete who stepped on campus in August of 2001.
“The past three seasons have gone by so fast,” said Hughes. “I still feel like I’m 18 years old. It doesn’t feel like three years have passed and I’m a senior. It’s hard to believe that this time has gone. I can’t even explain it.”