Sabrina Baftiri caps stellar cross country career at St. Francis

Morris grad Baftiri finishes Saints’ career with several accolades

Morris graduate Sabrina Baftiri earned many individual honors while helping lead the University of St. Francis women's cross-country team to three NAIA top four-finishes in her career.

MORRIS – When Sabrina Baftiri began running cross country at Morris High School, she had no idea how far the sport would taker her.

Turns out it was pretty far, as she recently finished her career at the University of St. Francis with an armful of awards, including being part of an NAIA National Championship, a national runner-up and a national fourth-place team in her five years competing for the Saints.

In addition, she was named the Midwest Region Women’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year after placing among the top four finishers in three of the five meets she competed in last fall and taking eighth in one of the other two meets. Her top performance came when she captured the individual title at the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships, finishing the 5K course in 18:02.7. Baftiri’s other top finishes were at the Taylor University (Indiana) Ray Bullock Invitational and the Saints’ own Twilight Invite, where she placed second and fourth, respectively.

Baftiri didn’t start running cross country until her junior season at Morris. She had played volleyball during the fall of her freshman and sophomore years, but decided to try cross country as a junior in hopes of it helping her track and field career. Although she only spent two years on the cross country team, she was able to be a part of the first Morris girls team to win a regional title.

“I wasn’t feeling volleyball any more,” she said. “I was running the 400 in track, so I thought that cross country would help me with that. My dad wanted me to be a shorter distance sprinter, like the 100 and 200, but I wasn’t fast enough for those, so I was running the 400.

“We had put a lot of effort into it, and I wanted to get better, and I thought cross country would help me. I still ran the 400 in track, but I was never able to qualify for state. In cross-country, I was able to be noticed, and St. Francis gave me a shot.”

Morris graduate Sabrina Baftiri helped lead University of St. Francis' women's cross-country team to an NAIA national championship in 2020 and a runner-up finish in 2021.

St. Francis wasn’t her first college of choice, but Morris assistant coach Derek Babson steered her in that direction.

“Coach Babson encouraged me to run in college,” she said. “At first, I was leaning toward going to Millikin University, where I would come in and be the top runner. But Coach Babson told me that if I went somewhere that I was No. 1 already, I wouldn’t have anything to strive for. At St. Francis, I would be in the middle of the pack and it would give me something to chase and improve toward.”

In Baftiri’s junior year at St. Francis, the Saints picked up their best-ever NAIA finish, stepping on the podium as the fourth-place team. The next season of competiton – after the COVID-19 season – St. Francis was the national champion. As a super senior, Baftiri and the Saints finished as the national runner-up.

“That junior year, when we got fourth, was my favorite year,” she said. “I would have taken a bullet for the girls on that team. We were so close and had gone through so much to get to that level. Then, the next year, half of the team was gone and we had a lot of new girls. It was great to win the national championship, but the new girls had no idea what we had gone through to get ourselves to that point.

“The next year, we were ranked No. 1 and the pressure was on since we won it all the year before. We were disappointed to be the runner-up, but looking back at it, it’s still pretty special. Most of the teams in the country would kill to be the national runner-up.”

During the 2019 championship, Baftiri achieved USTFCCCA NAIA All-America recognition, as well being as a USTFCCCA NAIA All-Academic pick. She was USF’s top runner in four meets and had six top-20 place performances.

Baftiri graduated with her bachelor’s degree in mid-level math and her master’s degree in teaching and learning with a concentration in health. She is hoping to land a job coaching cross country on the college level.

“I hope to find a college coaching position soon,” she said. “I have had several colleges approach me, and I have it narrowed down to two colleges right now. Each one is about 2½-3 hours from home, and that’s about as far away as I want to get to start.

“I think I will be able to take a lot of what I learned from [USF] Coach [Jeff] Barker and implement it, as well as use my own experiences as a runner and as a college student to make sure the kids have some balance. I want to coach college because I want to be around runners that take cross country seriously, but I also know that they have to have a good balance between running and being a college student.”

Rob Oesterle

Rob Oesterle

Rob has been a sports writer for the Morris Herald-News and Joliet Herald-News for more than 20 years. He is currently also writing news for the Morris Herald-News.