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Cross Country: ‘Cats place 3rd in final race before championships

The postseason is just around the corner.

Following a rough outing in South Bend two weeks prior, Northwestern bounced back in a big way to place third at the Penn State National Open. Despite an off race from usual frontrunner Rachel McCardell, the team was able to place three runners in the top 10 in its final meet before the championship season begins.

The squad was led by graduate student Lotte van der Pol, who placed sixth with a 6K time of 21:10. It was the first time leading for the Netherlands native, who improved her overall pace from the Joe Piane Invitational, despite the race being a kilometer longer. Following van der Pol were junior Kalea Bartolotto, who placed seventh in a time of 21:12, and the aforementioned McCardell, who finished 10th in a time of 21:16. Sophomore Katherine Hessler and senior Hannah Hall rounded out the scoring with times of 22:25 and 22:28 to place 43rd and 46th, respectfully.

Northwestern’s 109 points placed them third out of the 16-team field, behind only No. 9 Michigan and Georgia Tech, who received votes in the latest NCAA Coaches’ Poll.

The Wildcats performed significantly better in part due to their use of pack running, a strategy that was difficult to deploy in a more competitive field at their previous outing. Northwestern’s top three runners stuck together early and remained close-by for the majority of the race, ultimately finishing only six seconds apart. This tight finish was a large improvement from the Piane Invitational, as the spread between NU’s top three was cut down by over a minute. While the fourth and fifth runners need to finish closer to the top three in order to be competitive in the Big Ten at the team level, Northwestern has to be pleased with what it’s seen from its leaders.

Another encouraging sign heading into championship season is that Northwestern was able to place third even when its top runner didn’t have her best day. After winning both the Hawkeye Invitational and ISU Redbird Invite in September, McCardell ran the best race of her career at the Piane Invitational with a 5K time of 16:33. The finish was only two seconds behind Minnesota’s Bethany Hasz, the Big Ten Champion from the postponed 2020 season. McCardell, who finished 18th at the Big Ten Championships in January, has seen herself vault into the top of the conference’s ranks, and there’s now a distinct possibility that she competes with Hasz for the Big Ten individual title.

The Wildcats will get a week of rest before heading back out to Penn State — the same course they last raced on — for the Big Ten Championship meet on October 29th. While the team may not be in contention for a title, a second attempt at the course and a day of improvements could instill confidence and greatly help develop this team.