In 2019, Northwestern finished 13th at the Big Ten Cross Country Championships. The fastest runner placed 58th in the conference with a time of 21:32 and the team racked up a whopping 353 points, with 55 seconds separating its first and fifth runner.
Now, just three years later, the Wildcats are making their name known on not just the conference level, but on the national stage.
Things have changed greatly since Jill Miller’s first year as head coach. For starters, the team has had incredible success at the top. Last season, senior Rachel McCardell became just the third Wildcat ever to be named to the All-Big Ten Team with a fifth-place finish. Two weeks later, she booked her ticket to the NCAA Championships by finishing third at the Midwest Regional.
McCardell’s return for a fifth season has benefited the ‘Cats greatly, as her eighth-, second- and fourth-place finishes have helped Northwestern finish third, third and first overall, respectively. However, the biggest reason for Miller’s squad’s improvement has been the depth. Northwestern’s top six runners are all below 21 minutes for the 6K, with just 10 seconds separating the ‘Cats’ second-through-fifth runners at the last race.
The leaps made by the top seven outside McCardell, combined with the graduate transfer addition of Ari Marks, have led to Northwestern’s rise in 2022. Their gradual improvement hit its season-high last Friday, as the Wildcats finished first out of 38 teams at the Bradley Pink Classic. Northwestern scored all five runners inside the top 20, while no other team had more than three. Most notably, the ‘Cats took down Illinois, which was previously ranked No. 29 nationally and No. 2 in the region, outscoring the Fighting Illini 68-84.
McCardell crossed the line first in purple, running the 6K in a career-best 20:11 to place fourth overall. Ten spots later, the Wildcat pack that had spent most of the race within seconds of each other finished just as closely. Sophomores Ava Earl and Anna Hightower came through within half a second of one another, running 20:38.9 and 20:39.3 to earn 14th and 15th place, respectively. Shortly after, senior Kalea Bartolotto finished in 19th with a time of 20:46, and Marks was the next runner in at 20:48. Junior Katherine Hessler closed in 20:58, and graduate student Olivia Verbeke ran 21:17 to round out the lineup. Five of the top seven set new personal bests Friday, while the other two had just earned theirs at the prior meet.
The phenomenal day down in Peoria rewarded the Wildcats with something they haven’t had in two decades — a national ranking. On Tuesday, Northwestern was ranked No. 29 in the nation and No. 2 in the Midwest, leapfrogging Illinois on both lists. While 2002 was the most recent year the Wildcats were ranked in the National Coaches’ Poll, it also represents the last time Northwestern qualified for the NCAA Championships. In program history, the ‘Cats have only run at the final meet of the year twice, placing 13th in their inaugural 1985 season before ending 30th out of 31 teams in 2002.
That appears destined to change. With only the Big Ten Championships and NCAA Regional meets remaining, the No. 29 Wildcats sit in prime position to be selected as one of the 13 at-large bids outside of the 18 automatic qualifiers. However, with their improvement to the No. 2 spot in the Midwest, the ‘Cats may not even have to worry about earning the at-large bid. If Northwestern holds its current position as a top-two team in its region, it’ll automatically qualify for a trip to Stillwater, OK on Nov. 19.
In addition to Northwestern, four Big Ten teams — No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 22 Ohio State, No. 23 Michigan State and No. 26 Michigan — are currently ranked in the top 30. The Wildcats will have the chance to face off against their conference counterparts next Friday at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor. After finishing seventh last year, Northwestern will certainly look to make a splash and surprise everyone again as it seeks to continue its momentum toward the Championships.