Hannah Steelman, a 2017 Orono High School graduates, competes in the recent NCAA Division I women's cross country championship in Tallahassee, Florida. Steelman earned All-American honors with her 24th place finish and helped North Carolina State win the team championship. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. State Athletics

The last time North Carolina State University won an NCAA Division I team championship, Lorenzo Charles was dunking home a desperation shot by teammate Dereck Whittenburg at the buzzer in an upset win for the 1983 men’s basketball title with Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug.

Thirty-eight years later, NC State finally struck again, this time with 2017 Orono High School graduate Hannah Steelman among those doing the running, first in competition and then in celebration as the Wolfpack captured the 2021 NCAA women’s cross country championship at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, Florida.

North Carolina State University senior distance runner Hannah Steelman, an Orono High School graduate, earned NCAA Division I first-team All-America status in both cross country and indoor track at separate events earlier this month. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. State Athletics

“Just in general to accomplish something like this is pretty surreal,” said Steelman after completing final exams en route to the bachelor’s degree in psychology she’ll receive from the Raleigh, North Carolina, school next week.

NC State featured a tight five-runner pack at nationals that never strayed far from the front throughout the 6-kilometer race, finishing within nine seconds of one another as the Wolfpack scored 84 points to outdistance runner-up Brigham Young University (122).

Steelman, competing through a minor Achilles-area injury that nagged her throughout the fall,  placed fourth among that NC State contingent and 24th overall to earn All-America status for the third straight year.

She earned similar status in 2019 at Wofford College in South Carolina, before transferring to NC State, where she placed fifth in the 2020 NCAA championships that were delayed until this March due to COVID-19.

“I wasn’t 100 percent this year and that wasn’t what I had hoped going into my fifth and final year of cross country,” said Steelman, who like other college athletes received an additional year of athletic eligibility due to the pandemic. “But I wouldn’t have wanted the NCAAs to go any other way.”

The NCAA title was the first for the NC State women’s cross country program, though the Wolfpack also won national titles in 1979 and 1980 when women’s collegiate sports were administered by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, or AIAW.

This effort came eight months after NC State finished second to BYU at the delayed 2020 nationals, with Steelman leading Wolfpack finishers. While expectations were high heading into the fall, Steelman’s race schedule was reduced to contend with her injury concerns.

Hannah Steelman, a 2017 Orono High School graduate, runs for North Carolina State in the recent NCAA Division I women’s cross country championbships at Tallahassee, Florida. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. State Athletics

“I did what I could,” Steelman said. “I’ve been battling a small injury all year and mentally that’s hard to deal with when you’re a competitive athlete. Some days it feels good, some days it feels terrible and it takes a toll on you emotionally because you get excited when it feels good and you try your hardest not to feel defeated when it doesn’t feel good.”

Steelman placed fourth at the ACC championships on Oct. 29 as the Wolfpack easily won that race, scoring just 20 points compared to 87 for second-place North Carolina. She then sat out the Division I Southeast Regional, but NC State still won comfortably to head into nationals ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Steelman not only got to the starting line, she also reached the finish line in All-American form, reserved for the top 25 finishers.

“Hannah dealt with some minor injury issues this fall but she managed that and her emotions around it extremely well,” NC State coach Laurie Henes said. “She wasn’t exactly where she wanted to be individually, but she was so incredibly tough and calm and was able to be All-American and help us win the NCAA championship.”

Steelman, who competed in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this year and now is a 10-time All-American in cross country and track between Wofford and NC State, is resting in her bid to be healthy for the 2022 indoor and outdoor track seasons. She’s also envisioning a professional running career, perhaps starting as soon as next June.

“If you have told me senior year of high school coming out of Orono that I would have been part of a national championship-winning team — if you had even told me that I was going to be going to a Division I program like NC State and being in their top five — I probably would have not believed you,” Steelman said.

“This is not what I pictured for myself, but it’s definitely a dream of mine.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...