Air Force junior Maria Mettler’s cross country season took a major detour, but she found her way back right in time.

“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen as a coach,” Ryan Cole said.

It looked as though what Cole called a potential all-American-caliber season would be ruined by flare-ups from an injury sustained in combatives. Mettler took injections to manage iliopsoas bursitis, inflammation around the hip, but the rehab dragged on longer than expected.

The Class 4A state prep champion and 2017 Gazette Track and Field Peak Performer of the Year from Air Academy spent a month on a stationary bike and in the pool and thought about resilience.

“I questioned a lot about, should I be doing this? Is this all going to be a waste?” Mettler said. “Should I just take the season off, get ready for track? Should I even chance it?

“Prayed a lot. Talked to my coaches and my teammates a lot. They all believed in me even when I had doubts.”

It was determined she’d return, even though the pain lingered and she wasn’t sure where she was fitness-wise. The Mountain West Championships were a heck of a way to find out.

Throughout the Nov. 1 race, Mettler relied on Mahala Norris, Lindsey Blanks and Mikayla Gallagher, who stayed and worked together. That hasn’t happened often on that stage for Air Force women, Mettler said.

“I really drew a lot of strength and confidence from them,” she added. “That honestly pulled me through the crowd.

“It was something I’m going to remember forever. That was just a really special race for me.”

Mettler was third out of 88 runners in 20:13.1, just 0.2 seconds ahead of Norris. Both claimed first-team honors. Blanks and Gallagher finished in the top 12 and were second-team all-Mountain West, rounding out the most all-conference accolades in program history.

The 14th-ranked Falcons matched their best conference finish as runners-up to 12-time defending champion New Mexico.

“Not only did (Mettler) help our team on that day, but that example’s going to carry on for a long time,” Cole said. “That’s something we’ll talk about for years to come.

“What she’s done over the last two months has been truly amazing.”

The Falcons will take on a bigger field at regionals Friday in Salt Lake City.

They’ve built a strong case to qualify for nationals for the first time since 2016 — “nothing’s given,” Mettler said — with only one holdover from that history-making 2016 group.

Nationals begin Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind.

“Our team has a lot of depth right now, which honestly for the women’s cross country has never really happened,” Mettler said.

Cole hopes it will happen more, and recent history suggests it could.

“It’s going to take people like Maria that are excited about it, that are determined, and whatever gets thrown at them, they don’t let that deter them,” Cole said.

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