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Cross Country: Diving into Northwestern’s best Big Ten finish since 1986

One more strong performance, and the ‘Cats will be dancing.

Alec Cohen/Northwestern Athletics

In a season filled with highs Northwestern hasn’t reached in decades, the Wildcats may have pulled off their biggest feat yet. At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on Oct. 28, Northwestern finished fifth with 116 points. It marked NU’s best performance at this meet since 1986, when it tied for second place with Iowa.

Rachel McCardell (20:23) made her second straight All-Big Ten First Team with a seventh-place finish in the 6K race, becoming the second runner in Northwestern history to do so after Aubrey Roberts accomplished the feat in 2017 and 2018. Kalea Bartolotto (20:29) posted a personal best, which was good for an 11th-place finish and a Second Team nod, while Ari Marks (20:39) was just two spots and three seconds shy of that honor in 16th.

Having raced at Ann Arbor back on Sep. 9 in the Big Ten Preview, Northwestern was familiar with Michigan’s home course. It is notoriously difficult, though. With ample backbreaking hills throughout the middle miles, it sets an even bigger stage for uber-competitive racing, where placing high is the only priority instead of running fast times. Granted, that would have been the case at any course given the race’s importance, but the extra adversity the hills provided meshed perfectly with the championship setting.

The ‘Cats got out fast in the first mile, and they had to. Penn State’s Kileigh Kane broke away from the field in the first two minutes of the race, and her teammate Faith DeMars was at the front of the chase pack. Those two, as well as Penn State’s pack of three sitting around 20th place, put the Nittany Lions in the lead through a mile. For a squad that wasn’t ranked going into the race, a start like this with a bunch of hills ahead looks bold and potentially intimidating for some of the Big Ten’s top teams.

PSU began well ahead of better teams such as No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 22 Ohio State, so it was clear this wouldn’t be sustainable. Penn State’s strategy, however, might have been to put enough runners in the front early to give itself a chance to finish as a top-five team.

That may have put pressure on Northwestern, ranked 29th nationally and projected to finish fifth in the race heading into it, to race aggressively early on. McCardell, Bartolotto and Katherine Hessler placed themselves firmly in the thick of the crowded chase pack, and NU came through the mile marker in fourth.

The field’s top contenders took note of this and used the downhills off the steep inclines to catch up with Kane and stretch out the lead pack. By the end of mile two, they whittled it down to just 11 runners, with McCardell clinging to the back. Penn State had fallen back to earth and dropped to fifth, but so had the ‘Cats, who found themselves in sixth. Although Marks moved up 24 spots, every other scorer besides McCardell fell back significantly. Even the star grad student was on the verge of getting dropped from the lead pack of a race she finished fifth in last year.

The third mile is what ultimately made this race a successful one for Northwestern. The favorites — No. 26 Michigan, No. 23 Michigan State, the Badgers and the Buckeyes — were all duking it out for the team title. However, NU created enough separation from the Nittany Lions to all but clinch fifth place. Five of Northwestern’s top seven moved up, while Kane and Penn State’s back-end scorers continued to pay for their fast start.

Scorers like Marks and Ava Earl, who each jumped up six spots, likely made so many moves critical to the team race that BTN+ didn’t catch. That’s what makes broadcasts of cross-country races tricky: they focus almost exclusively on the leaders (we need individual chip cameras and drone shots!) while the team battle plays out behind them. For that reason, I’m only going to focus on what McCardell did here, though NU performed remarkably well as a team down the stretch.

McCardell’s wealth of experience and strength make her great at picking and choosing when she surges. With a short, steep incline about 400 meters into the third mile followed by the course’s most intense descent, the leaders had a prime opportunity to drop McCardell. Had that happened, the Northwestern star would have had to struggle alone with more than a mile to go and a growing gap between herself and the leaders. Not only would that deficit make it more difficult for her to kick well, but it would also make her an easy target for trailing competitors to pick off.

Recognizing she can earn herself a few places if she can hang on for a few more minutes, McCardell comes out of nowhere here.

She picks up her stride turnover, runs in a straight path instead of losing energy by winding toward the pack and establishes her position despite some jockeying at the end. Textbook.

With that self-awareness comes patience. Less than two minutes later, McCardell found herself in a similar position. The contenders had reached the bottom of the descent, and were stretching out the lead pack again before gearing up for a second climb up the course’s longest hill.

By this point, three runners had fallen off the pack since McCardell’s last move. With a crushing ascent ahead and a few more points in the bag, she plays it safe. The grad student locks in on holding her position and trying to catch Ohio State’s Andrea Kuhn, Wisconsin’s Samantha Stieve or anyone else who may fall off the leaders in the final mile or so.

There’s no noticeable shift in McCardell’s posture and stride as the leaders pull away. No panic. She is staring the hardest part of the race dead in the eye while the pack is leaving her behind after she resisted it for 15 straight minutes, yet stays poised both physically and mentally.

That decision proved to be a wise one, because most of the other runners soon got dropped by Ohio State’s Addie Engel, who took the individual crown with a blazing finish. McCardell left enough in the tank to unleash a powerful kick of her own on Wisconsin’s Shea Ruhly, who went through the three-mile marker beside Engel in fourth. The camera doesn’t do this one justice.

McCardell put almost three seconds on Ruhly in the last 100 yards or so! That’s impressive by itself, and this doesn’t even show how McCardell caught up with the Badgers’ top scorer. By the way, you can also see Bartolotto leaving everything out on the grass.

Stellar finishes across the board, particularly from Bartolotto and Earl, propelled the ‘Cats to their fifth-place finish, which left them just 12 points behind the fourth-place Buckeyes. In fact, Northwestern closed so well that it ended up closer to the conference champion Spartans than sixth-place Penn State.

In 2019, head coach Jill Miller’s first season at the helm, Northwestern finished 13th at this meet. It is nothing short of incredible that it has improved this much in just four years. NU is now projected to earn the Midwest Region’s second automatic bid to the National Championship in Stillwater, Okla. on Nov. 19.

The ‘Cats will look to punch their ticket to that meet for the first time in two decades on Friday, Nov. 11 at the Midwest Regional in Columbia, Mo.