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Fall sports: Cross Country

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We conclude our fall series on sports other than football with a look at NU’s women’s cross country team.

This team is probably NU’s most obscure. It doesn’t really have any kind of winning tradition. It’s not exactly a spectator sport. And even if it was, the team doesn’t host any home meets, apparently.

You might not have even known NU has a women’s cross country team. But now, after reading this, you do. You’re welcome.

The team is actually coming off one of its most successful seasons in recent years, which, to be frank, isn’t saying a whole lot. The team is off to another good start this year, as NU has placed first in three out of four events.

Hit the jump for a closer look.

How’s the team doing so far? Pretty good. Like I said in the intro, NU has won three out of the four meets it’s entered, though the wins have come against less than imposing fields. In the lone competitive meet the Wildcats have run in, they placed 16th out of 26. That was apparently a solid enough showing to get NU ranked No. 7 in this week’s USTFCCCA Midwest Regional poll.

NU heads over to South Bend this weekend for the adidas Notre Dame Invitational, which should provide some tough competition. One month left to go until the Big Ten championships.

How does the sport work? All 12 Big Ten schools sponsor women’s cross country, but they all kind of do their own thing, entering various meets, until the Big Ten championships. Then there are NCAA Regionals, and the top two teams and four individual runners in each regional qualify for the NCAA Championships. Add in 13 at-large berths for a 31-team NCAA Championship field, along with the top 38 runners whose team didn’t qualify.

Villanova has won the most championships (nine), including the last two, followed by Stanford with five. Other top programs include Brigham Young and North Carolina State. The Big Ten?  Eh, it’s ok, not that great. The conference does have five teams ranked in the most recent USTFCCCA National poll (not to be confused with the Midwest Region poll), led by Michigan at No. 12.

How’d they do last year? Not bad, by NU standards. NU placed 11th at the NCAA Midwest Regionals out of 27 teams, its best team performance since 2003, and then-sophomore Audrey Huth became the first Wildcat to qualify for the NCAA Championships since 2002, after placing 17th at Regionals and 20th at the Big Ten championships.

What’s the historical context? NU hasn’t really seriously contended in cross country, qualifying just twice for the NCAA Championships, in 2002 when it finished 30th and in 1985, when it finished 13th.

NU started its program in 1976, but then dissolved it from 1988 until 1997, when it got revived again in part due to Title IX commitments. Not having a track team probably holds the program back somewhat. The program is on a bit of an upswing, though. In 2009, the team placed 14th at NCAA Regionals, being the only non-track program to place in the top 15 at any regional. And then last year, they moved up to 11th. 

What’s the outlook this year? I’m no cross country expert, but obviously it’s a good thing when your best runner returns. Huth continues to pace the Wildcats, leading the team in every meet so far. Other top runners on the squad appear to include senior Sophie Ewald, sophomore Lexie Goldsmith, junior Ashley Greenwell, senior Rachel Kaminski and sophomore Ann Powers.

Given how far NU has to go in order to qualify for the NCAA Championships, it’s not likely they’ll get there this season. But hey, you never know, right?  All it takes is one good race at Regionals.

Who are the coaches? April Likhite, a Mississippi State grad, is in her eighth year at NU. She actually first became head coach in 1998, helping resurrect the program after a 10-year hiatus. She then left in 2001 to teach physical education and coach high school cross country in the Detroit suburbs before returning to NU in 2007.

Former Duke All-American Patricia Loughlin Tormey is the team’s assistant.