INDIANAPOLIS – And then there were nine. In a process that began with a record number of nominees this summer, the National Collegiate Athletics Association has named Whitworth University's Kayla Leland as one of nine finalists for the prestigious NCAA Woman of the Year award.
Leland (Spokane, Wash. / Gonzaga Prep), a multiple time All-American in cross country and track and field, is one of three student-athletes from NCAA Division III-member schools among the final nine. There are three women from each NCAA division. The NCAA will celebrate all of the Top 30 finalists, and announce the 2018 Woman of the Year, at an awards dinner on Sunday, October 28th in Indianapolis.
"I am beyond blessed and forever grateful that the NCAA has chosen me as one of the nine finalists," Leland said. "It means so much to be able to share this with my family, coaches, professors, and teammates who have made it all possible and who have made so many sacrifices along the way. I could not have imagined a better way to close out my collegiate years than with this great honor."
The Northwest Conference selected Leland as its nominee for the award in August. She was the second Pirate in three years to become the NWC's Woman of the Year nominee, following KC McConnell's selection in 2015-16. She then made the cut to the final 30 in early September, becoming the first Whitworth woman to achieve that honor.
Leland is the first woman from the NWC to advance to this point in the process since Kaaren Hatlen of Pacific Lutheran in 2013, who also made the final nine.
Member institutions initially nominated 581 women for the award, the most in the 28-year history of the NCAA's Woman of the Year program. There were 153 honorees put forward from the conferences for the national award, 61 from NCAA Division III. The 153 nominees represented 18 different NCAA sports and Leland was one of 61 nominees who were multi-sport participants.
The NCAA Woman of the Year award is based on four pillars: academics, athletics, service and leadership. It is one of the highest awards given by the NCAA. The Woman of the Year award is unique in its recognition of female student-athletes who are not just successful on the field and in the classroom, but have also contributed to their communities and campuses.
"We are so proud of Kayla and the recognition she is receiving through this award, but I also feel that she is representative of the special kind of student-athletes we have at Whitworth," said Tim Demant, Whitworth's Director of Athletics. "Certainly Kayla is an unbelievable athlete, a great student and a remarkable person of character. We know she is very deserving of being considered for this prestigious honor."
Leland became a 2018 NCAA Division III Academic All-American in track and field / cross country earlier this year. She graduated in May with a double major in health science and Spanish. She carried a 3.94 GPA into the spring semester. Leland is attending graduate school at Washington State University this fall.
Leland was an All-American in three sports in 2017-18, beginning with a 19th-place finish at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. She finished fifth in the 5,000 meters at the 2018 NCAA Division III Indoor Track & Field Championships. Leland closed out her year by taking second place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2018 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships. In between Leland was the 2018 Northwest Conference women's track Athlete of the Year after she won the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters in a span of less than 24 hours. Leland was selected as Whitworth's Senior Athlete of the Year in May.
"Kayla has impacted the track and field and cross country programs like few others have in the past," said Toby Schwarz, the Pirates' head coach in both sports. "She has single handedly rewritten the team record books and she has shown the next generation of Pirate student-athletes what is possible through commitment and sacrifice. She was a team player from day one and not only modeled how hard one can work in practice but also how dedicated someone can be to their academics and career goals. Kayla deserves every honor that is bestowed on her."
Over the course of her Whitworth running career, Leland was a 10-time Northwest Conference champion and seven-time USTFCCCA All-American in six events across track and field and cross country. She holds 13 school records, five in outdoor track and field, five in indoor track and field, and three in cross country. She also holds two Northwest Conference records, including the fastest 3,000-meter steeplechase time in conference history and the conference meet record for the 10,000.
Despite her academic demands and athletic commitments, Leland still found time to become actively involved in the Whitworth and Spokane communities. She volunteered with the Salvation Army food bank and spent four years participating in Whitworth's Community Building Day, assisting various local organizations. Leland coached at a youth basketball camp, volunteered at Spokane's Hoopfest, and served as a team leader for the Trick or Treat So Kids Can Eat annual food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank.
Leland graduated summa cum laude. She collected six U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association academic awards for Division III, twice in cross country and four times in track and field. She was a member of the Whitworth Laureate Society and earned academic honor roll accolades every year. She was also a recipient of the Whitworth Mind and Heart Academic Scholarship, the highest available academic award.
"The impact of this honor will have a ripple effect on the rest of my life," Leland said. "This experience has encouraged and motivated me, now more than ever, to do all that I can to serve and help others in the future. I am always thankful for those who encourage and challenge me to be the best that I can be, which is exactly what the NCAA has done with this selection."
In addition to Leland, the other eight finalists for the 2018 NCAA Woman of the Year award are:
• Ade Ayoola, University of Chicago (NCAA Division III)
• Trisana Fairweather, Claflin University (NCAA Division II)
• Delaney Hiegert of Newman University (NCAA Division II)
• Kami Norton of Angelo State University (NCAA Division II)
• Keturah Orji of the University of Georgia (NCAA Division I)
• Sidney Peters of the University of Minnesota (NCAA Division I)
• Vanessa Shippy of Oklahoma State University (NCAA Division I)
• Amelia Wilhelm of Bates College (NCAA Division I)