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Northwestern cross country post-mortem 2022: A magical season may be a foundation

NUXC reached heights it hasn’t seen in decades.

Photo by Alec Cohen/Northwestern Athletics

There are three schools of the 75 in the traditional Power Six conferences that currently offer women’s cross country without a track and field team alongside it: Seton Hall, Creighton and Northwestern. In the last two decades, those teams have combined for a total of one national championship qualification. That bid belongs to the 2022 Wildcats.

This is not supposed to happen. It definitely shouldn’t happen before head coach Jill Miller — who took over a program in August 2019 that was second-to-last in the Big Ten the year before she arrived — has even watched her first recruiting class graduate. Not in Evanston, whose pancake-flat paths would probably trigger some laughter if the athletes from national runner-up New Mexico, who train at over 5,000 feet of altitude with mountains galore, were to visit.

And with four Midwest Region teams in Oklahoma State, Illinois, Iowa State and Minnesota all ranked in the USTFCCCA’s preseason national top 30 and only two automatic bids to the national title meet available? Impossible. Sure, NU finished fourth in the Midwest in 2021 and graduate students Rachel McCardell and Olivia Verbeke were coming back for a fifth season, but the team just didn’t have enough depth behind them to cement itself among the nation’s best.

The ‘Cats — who finished 30th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Okla. on Saturday — took all of those prognostications, blew them away like a gale and might replace them with a sky-high bar that demands a level of excellence the program has never seen in its 37-year history.

From the beginning, there were positive signs. When Northwestern finished third out of six teams at the Big Ten Preview in Ann Arbor on Sep. 10, beating the Golden Gophers and going toe to toe with conference powerhouse Ohio State, it was clear the Wildcats were more talented than in 2021.

Unlike in years past, the most notable takeaway from that early-season race wasn’t McCardell’s strength, but that of the runners in purple behind her. Ari Marks, a graduate transfer who won the Division III 10,000-meter national title for Wellesley last spring, finished just four seconds behind McCardell on the 6K course in 10th. Additionally, none of Northwestern’s top five runners were passed in the last kilometer of the hilly course, displaying impressive endurance for a small meet that was more than a month away from championship racing.

But there was still work to be done. The Gans Creek Classic, held at the same Columbia, Mo. course on Sep. 30 where the ‘Cats would race for a Nationals berth six weeks later, may have been a necessary wakeup call. McCardell, Marks and Kalea Bartolotto all placed themselves at the front of the lead pack with two kilometers to go, but couldn’t match a blazing kick from Illinois’s Olivia Howell and a flurry of late moves from the Illini middle scorers. Miller’s squad narrowly finished in third behind their in-state rivals and Lipscomb.

That set the stage for an important two-week training block. Northwestern had proven it was capable of big things through its first half of the season, but could its back-end scorers step up to defeat the big teams in the Midwest Region and garner some serious national attention?

The answer was a resounding yes. Not only did the ‘Cats win the Bradley Pink Classic over Illinois and 36 other teams on Oct. 14, they posted a staggering 37-second spread between McCardell’s finish and that of Marks, who finished fifth. Sophomores Ava Earl and Anna Hightower, who typically locked down the team’s fourth and fifth spots, finished second and third, respectively.

It spoke volumes about Northwestern’s ability to pack well and its decreased dependence on its top runners to place highly. Both qualities are great indicators of a team’s depth and its potential to survive a bad day from a top-five runner in a qualifying race.

The voters took note, awarding NU with a second place slot in the Midwest and a No. 29 national ranking. That marked the first time the program had been ranked since 2002, and it ensured the Wildcats would at least be in the mix for an at-large bid to Stillwater come November.

Northwestern continued to make history, as it returned to Ann Arbor for the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 28 and posted a fifth-place finish, its best performance since 1986. McCardell finished in seventh place to earn her second straight All-Big Ten First Team nod, becoming the second Wildcat runner to ever do so after Audrey Roberts in 2018, while Bartolotto took 11th and earned a Second Team honor. NU finished closer to first-place Michigan State than sixth-place Penn State.

Two weeks later, the team put the cherry on top back at Gans Creek when it competed at the Midwest Regional. With national No. 3 Oklahoma State as the overwhelming favorite, it was imperative that the ‘Cats held their places through the back half of the race to earn the final automatic Nationals berth.

Considering the Cowgirls went out conservatively, going through 2K in eighth place, Northwestern did a very good job of not starting the race too aggressively to try and create an insurmountable gap. That would have left it more susceptible to crushing fatigue earlier on in the race and a greater chance of losing to outside contenders such as Bradley and Iowa State.

The Wildcats ended up earning the second spot over the Braves by 11 points thanks to four top-25 finishes from McCardell, Bartolotto, Marks and Earl, but once again, the big story was the depth. Hightower, who came in 27th and just missed out on joining the All-Region quartet, finished just 25.4 seconds after McCardell kicked off the scoring. She finished 15 spots ahead of Bradley’s fifth runner, which literally made the difference. With that, Northwestern earned its third national championship appearance in program history and its first since 2002.

The following Saturday, NU finished 30th of 31 teams on a frigid day in Stillwater. While the number looks discouraging by itself, Northwestern was ranked as the No. 30 team in the country going into the meet. McCardell led the way with a 95th-place finish in the 254-runner field, and Katherine Hessler also had a big day as the team’s third runner. That capped off what was undoubtedly Northwestern’s best season in two decades.

With McCardell set to leave, the ‘Cats may not immediately return to the Big Dance, but this year likely won’t be a fluke. Marks has another cross country season of eligibility, so it’s possible that Miller only loses McCardell and Verbeke from this year’s top seven. Both Bartolotto and Marks ran ample races alongside the star grad student throughout the season, so they may be able to make up for that hole at the top.

The second-year trio of Earl, Hightower and Hessler is also here to stay after its first year of top-level racing, and each athlete has the potential to develop into a top-end contributor with another nine months of training. First-year Skye Ellis is also a name to watch for, as she hung with and took down multiple runners at the Big Ten Preview who ultimately finished in the conference’s top 20 later in the fall.

It’s one thing to prove people wrong with an exciting run, but it’s another to build on it to establish high expectations that require yearly success on the regional and maybe even the national stages. Miller and Co. appear to be building something special in Evanston, and 2022 could signify the program-altering stepping stone that allows Northwestern XC to reach unprecedented heights in the coming years.