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Cross Country: Northwestern qualifies for its first national championship since 2002

Friday marked a truly historic moment for this program.

Lily Dozier /

In a season filled with surprises from start to finish, Northwestern cross country’s crowning achievement somehow may have been its least shocking one. By finishing second at the NCAA Midwest Regional at the University of Missouri last Friday, the Wildcats automatically earned their first NCAA Cross Country Championship berth since 2002 and third ever. They will race in Stillwater, Okla. on Saturday at 9:20 a.m. CT, with the meet broadcast on ESPNU.

This is a special accomplishment for this program, and it warrants some explanation as to why it is so significant.

This wasn’t unexpected in the last few weeks leading up to the Midwest Regional simply because NU exceeded preseason expectations with such flying colors that it only took until mid-October for the ‘Cats to become a favorite to qualify out of the Midwest. From Northwestern’s first national ranking in two decades to its victory over rival Illinois and 36 other teams at the Bradley Pink Classic, head coach Jill Miller’s squad has enjoyed a season for the ages.

In just three years, going from second-to-last in the Big Ten to a top-five team in the conference that isn’t a fun underdog story, but a school that was actually projected to make the NCAA title meet going into its regional qualifier, is inspiring. Add in the fact that Miller and her staff have recruited their athletes without a track program or any record of consistent team success as a selling point, and it’s nothing short of extraordinary.

I’d love to throw some rough revenue sport comparison out there to contextualize this, but there is no equivalent. Miller had to convince high school recruits to limit two-thirds of their chances to face elite competition, earn accolades and gain national exposure. Despite her extensive success at Wisconsin and William & Mary, Miller initially couldn’t point to evidence of her training philosophy paying off at NU in 2019 because she had just arrived there.

Continuity might be more important in cross country than in any other sport. A very good runner who sticks to an individually-optimized, multi-year development plan will almost always end up better than a great runner who suffers injuries that send them into frequent 180s in training focus due to a plan’s inadequacy. So, Northwestern has often started off with less recruiting prestige than most schools in the country, not to mention in a sport where one hole in a lineup can single-handedly sink a star-studded team every week.

The ‘Cats overcame all of it, and now have the potential to set a winning precedent. That’s rare for any team in the country, in any sport. With all this macro talk, you might be wondering how the actual runners made it happen.

Northwestern ran on Mizzou’s Gans Creek Cross Country Course back on Sep. 30, when it narrowly lost to Illinois and Lipscomb at the Gans Creek Classic. There’s no doubt that familiarity with the course did wonders, especially on a somewhat windy day where the temperature was below 30 degrees.

While Bradley’s Nicola Jansen took the race by storm, opening up a six-second lead through just two kilometers of the 6K race (with her teammate Tyler Schwartz in second), the top teams went out a little more conservatively. Northwestern came through in fourth, headlined by Rachel McCardell and Kalea Bartolotto leading the chase pack in fourth and fifth, while Midwest favorite and national No. 3 Oklahoma State was in an almost unfathomable eighth.

That’s when the moves began. They started a little farther back, as a pack ranging from the 11th-place runner to the 20th-place one began to create some separation. With three Minnesota runners nestled in there, the Wildcat trio of Ari Marks, Ava Earl and Anna Hightower a bit farther back may have been inclined to make sure the Golden Gophers wouldn’t get away. In the third kilometer, they moved up a combined 43 places to put Northwestern in first place, going through the halfway marker as a pack.

About halfway through the next kilometer, McCardell decided it was time to reel Jansen in, and that’s exactly what she did. The First-Team All-Big Ten member ate up the distance between the Bradley sophomore and the chase pack, with one stellar move in particular.

I already went a bit in-depth on McCardell’s awesome usage of short hills with long descents to cover ground on opponents, and she did it again on Friday. Take a look at how the Northwestern star (second, white singlet with pink lettering) brings the entire chase pack within striking distance of Jansen.

Because McCardell made that move heading into the 4K mark, it set the stage for a thrilling last mile and a quarter. A runaway individual battle instantly turned into a 10-runner slugfest. Taking the early liberty of single-handedly dragging that chase pack up to Jansen probably didn’t help McCardell, though, as she faded to eighth and clung to the back of the leaders at 5K.

As for the rest of the team, NU held first place, with its top five runners all in the field’s top 25 through 4K. However, Oklahoma State had moved up into second and was only continuing to pick up steam. Its lethal duo of 2021 All-American Taylor Roe and first-year Natalie Cook (who ran the second-fastest 5K in girls high school history) quietly made its way to the front at the 5K mark, while Sivan Auerbach and Heidi Demeo each moved up 12 more spots. That gave the Cowboys a lead they would not relinquish.

While the Wildcats had fallen back to second, their 18-point gap over Bradley (largely due to Hightower’s 17-second and 22-runner gap on opposing fifth runner Tiana LoStracco) was almost insurmountable, especially considering Jansen and the Braves had gone out very fast. That proved to be the case, as Northwestern’s 88 points earned it second place with an 11-point cushion.

McCardell led the way in eighth with a 20:22, while Marks (20:29), who continued to move up from the gun to the finish line, finished in 13th. Bartolotto’s 20:31 earned her 15th place, while Earl (20:44) and Hightower (20:47) rounded out the top five in 25th and 27th, respectively. Katherine Hessler (21:04) and Olivia Verbeke (21:38) were the sixth and seventh scorers.

All in all, Jill Miller’s squad had four All-Region honorees among the Midwest’s top 25 in McCardell, Marks, Bartolotto and Earl. More importantly, even though it may not have run its best race in Columbia, it automatically punched its ticket to Stillwater, which was the main goal.

Speaking of that race, the No. 30 ‘Cats are the lowest team that is ranked, meaning they are projected to be the second-worst team in the field next to unranked Texas. Northwestern has enjoyed much of its success this year at venues where it has raced multiple times, so the adjustment to Oklahoma State’s home course could be especially challenging. Thus, it’s difficult to determine what would make this a successful race for NU, as simply getting here is a monumental accomplishment.

With Big Ten foes No. 19 Michigan, No. 20 Michigan State, No. 17 Ohio State and No. 23 Wisconsin — who all finished ahead of the Wildcats at the Big Ten Championship on Oct. 28 — also in the mix, revenge on any of those teams would be sweet. A top-50 finish from McCardell and a few other top-100 placings would also be very impressive.

Ultimately, with all of the expectations thrown out once again, the ‘Cats now have a prime opportunity to close out a historic year by doing what they’ve done best: surprising everyone.