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Cross Country: McCardell finishes second at Gans Creek, NU moves up to No. 3 in Midwest

As good as 2021 was, 2022 might be much better.

With championship season now less than four weeks away, Northwestern cross country is looking more and more like a Midwest Regional contender. NU’s third-place finish out of 24 teams at the Gans Creek Classic in Columbia, Mo. on Sep. 30 was good enough to earn the third spot in the USTFCCCA’s weekly Midwest rankings.

In the weeks leading up to the 30th, Northwestern only had the Loyola Lakefront Invitational on its slate for the day. But a deep field shaped up in Columbia — one that included conference rivals Minnesota and national No. 28 Illinois. The course will also host the Midwest Regional Championship in November. That may have played a part in head coach Jill Miller’s decision to send her top 10 runners west for a preview. Seven of the team’s other runners stayed in-state and competed in Chicago, finishing seventh out of 11 teams.

At the Gans Creek Classic, the 6K race was up for grabs between three teams from the gun: Northwestern, Illinois and Lipscomb. The ‘Cats put themselves in a good position through the first half of the race, as their top three sat at the back of the lead pack through 3K. Olivia Verbeke and Anna Hightower, Northwestern’s next two runners, were in lockstep right behind it.

Over the next and slowest kilometer of the race, NU’s trio turned to team tactics. Kalea Bartolotto, Rachel McCardell and Ari Marks moved up to the front together, going through the 4K mark as the three leaders. While they didn’t break down the lead pack of about 15 runners and had to bear the brunt of leading it with Illinois’ Olivia Howell, their strong presence at the front all but guaranteed at least one of them would have a chance to win individually.

It was then that McCardell made a perfectly-timed move. She split a 3:20 kilometer from 4K to 5K, the fastest split of any runner in the field up to that point. Not only did that put her in first, but it also dropped most of the lead pack. Howell and Marks were the only ones within striking distance of McCardell heading into the home stretch.

But as great of a move as it was, Howell’s closing push was even better. The Illini star turned on the afterburners to split a jaw-dropping 3:07 and take the win by nine seconds in 20:21. McCardell’s 20:30 put her in second, while Marks and Bartolotto closed together to place seventh and eighth in 20:38.

Behind them, Hightower and Katherine Hessler finished in 20:58 and 21:04 to take 20th and 25th, respectively. Ava Earl (21:10, 28th) and Verbeke (21:19, 33rd) rounded out the top seven. Northwestern’s 62 points put it in third place, just two points behind Lipscomb and eight back of U of I. The ‘Cats handily beat Minnesota, who finished fourth.

Along with Howell, Illinois’ entire top five closed extremely well, which proved to be decisive. The Wildcats were actually ahead of the Illini through 5K, but Hightower and Hessler couldn’t take down Illinois’s fourth and fifth scorers. That difference could be crucial come the Midwest Regional race; the top two teams earn bids to the national championship and U of I is currently projected to finish second.

With McCardell, Marks and Bartolotto all top-end threats, the easy way to beat Illinois would be to improve at the four and five spots. But that’s easier said than done. Hightower, Earl, Verbeke and Hessler all turned in huge personal bests in Columbia, so there is a chance that this is about as good as Northwestern can get.

Nevertheless, the ‘Cats are deep. Verbeke, who faded late even though she ran a personal best, or first-year Skye Ellis could easily have a big race and put Northwestern over the edge. NU’s third through eighth scorers are close enough in ability to finish in a slew of combinations depending on the race. That also means they have the potential to race in packs, which is a crucial aspect of championship racing.

The early results are incredibly encouraging for Northwestern. It enjoyed its best season in two decades last year even though McCardell didn’t have much support at the top. With Marks as a dark horse contender for the individual Big Ten crown and Bartolotto able to pack with them at her best, one of NU’s biggest weaknesses may turn into its biggest strength.

It is not an overstatement to say the Wildcats have a legitimate shot to qualify for their first national championship as a team since 2002.

Next up for the ‘Cats is the Bradley Pink Classic in Peoria on Oct. 14. That will be their final race before they gear up for the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor two weeks later.