Even fresh off its highest NCAA Midwest Regionals finish in two decades, Northwestern cross country might have improved this offseason. The team’s success in its first two meets — the First State Bank Huskie Challenge at Northern Illinois and the Big Ten Preview — certainly seem to suggest so.
The ‘Cats kicked off their season with the Huskie Challenge on Sep. 2. It was a dual meet, meaning Northwestern only raced against Northern Illinois. That likely played a factor in head coach Jill Miller not putting top runners Rachel McCardell and Ari Marks on the starting line.
That didn’t take away from the fun at all, though. Led by first-year Skye Ellis, who won the 5K race in 18:21, Northwestern took the top six spots and nine of the first 11. Of those nine runners, four of them are first-years. It was an encouraging sign for NU, which relied on its top upperclassmen for much of its success in 2021.
A week later came a much more competitive meet: the Big Ten Preview at Michigan’s home course. In Ann Arbor, Northwestern toed the line with the national No. 10 Wolverines and No. 29 Minnesota. The field also included Great Lakes Region No. 5 Ohio State.
Not only did the ‘Cats hold their own, but they also turned heads throughout the NCAA. They placed third in the six-team race, finishing ahead of the Golden Gophers. As usual, McCardell led the way with a 21:23 6K time, which was good for eighth place. But Marks, a graduate student who was the runner-up for the Division III individual title with Wellesley last year, was right behind her. She snagged tenth place with a time of 21:27.
Behind the star duo, Ellis impressed again with a 21:48 and a 16th-place finish in the 87-runner field. Katherine Hessler was a second behind her, and fellow sophomores Ava Earl and Anna Hightower packed together to post 22:08 marks. Junior Kalea Bartolotto rounded out the top seven with a 22:13.
Outside of the times, this race gave Northwestern a ton to be optimistic about. Per PrimeTime Timing, which provided the splits and live results for the meet, not a single one of NU’s top five runners was passed in the last kilometer of the race.
In addition to helping the Wildcats edge out Minnesota for third, that performance revealed NU’s great finishing strength. In a league where almost every team is gearing their training toward gradually developing the necessary speed to race well at regional and national meets in November, it’s very impressive that the ‘Cats closed that well this early in the season.
Another positive was the 45.1-second time difference between McCardell and Earl, who finished fifth on the team. It was the smallest spread of any team in the race, revealing Northwestern’s ability to pack well. That was often a weakness in 2021, as the ‘Cats heavily depended on McCardell to finish in the individual top five or ten to place high as a team. With Marks now in the fold and Ellis already proving to be a force in the Big Ten, NU has the potential to pack at the top and take pressure off McCardell – a crucial aspect of championship racing.
The team is in the midst of a three-week training block before heading down to Chicago for the Loyola Lakefront Invitational on Sep. 30.