Stephanie Price wanted to keep running after her high school.

So Price, 35th in the Class 1A state meet as a Mankato Loyola senior, joined the Gophers cross-country team as a walk-on.

Coach Gary Wilson soon realized he made a mistake with her, though. Price was showing so much potential, he regretted not redshirting her that first season.

Nearly every day Price would come into his office and ask how she could get better.

Wilson, a veteran coach with a witty side, would ask her how old she was? She'd answer, 18. Could she make it to 19? Yes. "Then you will get better," he would say.

Improvement takes time was the coach's roundabout message.

Price, now 21 and a junior, became the second Gopher to win an individual women's title in the Midwest Regional on Nov. 13. Rasa Michniovaite Troup, the team's nutritionist, was the first in 1998.

Next Price and her teammates will compete in the NCAA meet Monday at Terre Haute, Ind. Minnesota placed third in the regional meet and received one of the 13 at-large bidsto nationals.

"Her goal is to be an all-American, the top 40," Wilson said. "She can run anywhere from the top five to the top 20 someplace, depends on the day, if she does what she has been doing."

The Gophers' best individual finish at NCAAs is Megan Duwell's seventh place as a senior last year, leading Minnesota to 10th place.

In the biggest meets this fall, Price has finished second, by less than 2 seconds, in the Roy Griak Invitational and the Big Ten meet and sixth in the pre-NCAA meet on the same course Oct. 16.

Then, there was the region meet, nine days ago. After coming so close to two big victories, Price won this time. She edged Iowa State's Betsy Saina by six-hundredths of a second.

"We were racing neck and neck. ... I got her at the end by a lean and half a step," Price said.

She has made strides all right. Price did not letter her first year but was named the Gophers' freshman of the year. As a sophomore last fall, she was usually the team's fifth runner and placed 112th in the NCAA meet.

This year she is one of nine region champions in the field with much higher expectations.

What happened? "I am just a lot more relaxed this year and a lot more confident," Price said. "I have a lot more belief in myself so, when I go into those race situations, I am not overthinking or overanalyzing and I also have a lot better perspective.

"Last year sometimes it would be the end of the world for me if I didn't race as well as I thought [I should]."

Her strategy for Monday's race is the same as it has been all season: "Just stay relaxed and not do anything too crazy. Just stick my nose in there and run a smart race."

Certainly, in the classroom, Price is intelligent. She has a 3.9 grade-point average and trains while balancing a demanding academic schedule. She is a nursing major, which includes a weekly eight-hour shift in an area hospital.

"When I get in the clinical setting, working with real patients, it's just a way to keep me in check and realize there is a whole outside world out there," Price said, "and there are things that are bigger, more important and that helps you enjoy running."

"I hope she is as good a nurse as she is a runner," Wilson said. "I might need her some day."