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Cross Country: Northwestern takes 14th at Virginia Invitational, in thick of jam-packed Big Ten at Loyola

The race for an at-large bid continues to get more fierce.

Troy L. Sayles / Elon Athletics

After an impressive showing against Big Ten competition at the Badger Classic in Madison on Sept. 9, Northwestern found itself ranked No. 29 in the nation by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association. Three weeks later, it has some ground to make up.

The Wildcats got their first taste of elite national competition in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sept. 23, as they took part in the Virginia Invitational. Of the 23 teams that raced at UVA’s Panorama Farms, nine had finished 2022 as top-17 squads in the nation. Because the NCAA Championships will be held there in November, it’s likely that many elite teams wanted to familiarize themselves with the hilly course to identify potential training and tactical areas of improvement to address in the weeks leading up to postseason racing.

As one of the slower teams in the field, there were two storylines to watch for the ‘Cats that Saturday: how they would fare against Midwest Regional rival Iowa State and how they’d compare to their Big Ten foes. Overall, Northwestern got a mixed bag of results.

Heading into the race ranked No. 26 nationally and No. 2 in the Midwest — marginally ahead of NU — the Cyclones blew the ‘Cats away. Iowa State moved up as a team throughout the 5K race, never losing points at each kilometer mark. Four ISU runners finished before Northwestern could even bring two across the line, which made a resounding statement that Amy Rudolph’s team may be closer to national No. 3 and Midwest No. 1 Oklahoma State than it is to Northwestern. Taking down multiple national contenders, Iowa State finished sixth overall in Charlottesville and proceeded to jump up 14 spots in the following week’s USTFCCCA poll all the way to No. 12.

Why focus on ISU before Northwestern? Its jaw-dropping performance all but guaranteed that an auto-bid to the NCAAs will not be available for the ‘Cats as it was in 2022. The top two teams in each region lock up those berths, and the dominance of the Cyclones and Cowgirls indicates that NU will likely need to set its sights on one of the 13 at-large bids available. It makes meets against great competition even more important.

Without third-year and NCAA qualifier Anna Hightower in the lineup, Northwestern managed. Katherine Hessler had a huge day, as she nearly beat her 5K best on the track with a 17:04 time on the grass and a 45th-place finish. Behind Hessler, Ava Earl put up a 17:20, and first-year Anna Delgado dropped a 17:22 to finish 66th and 69th, respectively. Delgado’s race was especially impressive because she stuck with Hessler beyond the 3K mark and was the seventh-fastest first-year in the entire field. To round out the top five, Maddy Whitman and Kalea Bartolotto ran 17:33 and 17:40, while Adele Magaud and Fiona Lenth finished right behind those two.

All in all, it was good for 14th in the field. Technically, the ‘Cats finished in a tie with Elon, but lost out because three of its top five runners finished higher than Northwestern’s. On the bright side, NU did edge out Ohio State by 10 points. Some nice finishing kicks from Hessler (who picked up 10 spots in the last kilometer) and Earl (who passed eight runners) probably helped. While the Buckeyes had much more top-end talent with reigning Big Ten champion Addie Engel and All-Big Ten First-Teamer Daniella Santos in the fold, NU’s back scorers made the difference.

That fact was encouraging, especially considering NU was without Hightower. However, the race revealed that Northwestern needs a little more starpower at the top of its lineup to ensure that a second consecutive NCAA berth is in the cards. In 2022, Bartolotto typically formed a great one-two punch with the recently graduated Rachel McCardell, but she was Northwestern’s fifth finisher at UVA. Hessler had a great race, but some more consistent support up top (and potentially above her) could go a long way.

The following week, Northwestern fell out of the national top 30. After heading home, it looked to move back in the right direction on Sept. 29, when it took a quick drive down Sheridan Road to participate in the Loyola Lakefront Invitational. Although it was local for the ‘Cats, they faced legitimate competition there; Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan and some other teams from around the country made the trip.

Once again, there were ups and downs for Northwestern. Hessler had another terrific showing, throwing down a massive 6K personal best with a 20:12. She ended up taking 16th, with Bartolotto coming through 15 seconds after her in 26th.

As the third scorer on the team, Lenth had a huge day. She not only broke the 21-minute barrier with her 20:41, she also shattered the 22-minute mark for the first time. Lenth actually came through the 5K mark in 33rd just seven seconds off her track personal best in that event, but fell back eight spots in the last kilometer to finish 41st. Delgado trailed her by six seconds, while Earl, Magaud and Boler rounded out the top seven.

Northwestern finished smack in the middle of the 16-school field as the eighth-place team. It narrowly lost to the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, which beat Jill Miller’s squad by 26 and 21 points, respectively. NU’s back scorers beat Ohio State’s, but the Santos-Engel duo proved to be too strong with the support of Akemi Von Scherr snagging a solid 29th as OSU’s No. 3. On the other hand, Michigan didn’t dominate Northwestern up top, but had much more depth at its three-through-five spots.

That result demonstrates that Northwestern is going to need the scorers from last year’s NCAA-qualifying lineup to race really well on the same day in order to beat those two teams at the Big Ten Championships in a couple of weeks. If the Wildcats are without Hightower come late October, it’s going to be crucial for Bartolotto, Earl and Hessler to all establish themselves near the front of the conference and regional title fields, or at least in the back of the chase pack.

Lenth and Delgado stepping up as high-scorers is encouraging for the team’s long-term depth in the lineup. Ultimately, though, Northwestern’s score will probably look much better if Earl or Bartolotto end up peaking at the same time as opposed to other runners on the team because those two have shown that they’re capable of finishing in the top 10 of major fields. For NU to write a resume that really wows the Division I Cross Country Subcommittee, which is in charge of selecting at-large teams for NCAAs come November, that needs to happen at a big meet — and preferably more than once.

Northwestern’s last stop before Big Tens on Oct. 27 will be in Peoria, where it’ll race at the Bradley Pink Classic on Oct. 13.