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Cross Country: Hessler finishes 5th in Big Ten, Northwestern loses ground down the stretch to place 6th

The ‘Cats fell just short of a top-five finish.

The last time Northwestern cross country was in Madison, Wisconsin in early September, it found itself in a dogfight. Its third-place finish at the Badger Classic, a meet in which six of the seven teams in the field came from the Big Ten, hinted that the Big Ten Championships a few weeks later would be tight.

Spoiler alert: it was. Although NU initially put itself in great position to put up a program-best team finish and create a very compelling case for a NCAA Championship at-large bid at the conference meet last Friday, it fell just outside the top five with 156 points. Ohio State, which received votes in the last U.S. Track and Field & Cross Country Coaches Association’s last national poll, edged out the ‘Cats by just two points.

On a much brighter note, though, senior Katherine Hessler ran one of the best races in program history. She snagged a fifth-place finish and an All-Big Ten First Team honor with a 21:10 in the 6K race.

Heading into the race, No. 15 Michigan State and No. 22 Wisconsin were the clear team favorites as the only nationally-ranked teams in the conference. The real competition was for the next three spots. Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Penn State are all teams with hopes of punching their ticket to NCAAs in November. However, since all of those teams are unlikely to place top-two in their respective regional meets in a few weeks, they were all under pressure to put on quality performances in a competitive field to strengthen their resumes.

Northwestern was already at a disadvantage here. Missing Anna Hightower, a junior who was a key scorer in NU’s NCAA-qualifying lineup in 2022, the Wildcats haven’t flashed as much top-end talent as they did last year. Because of that, they entered Big Tens as an underdog compared to the Wolverines, Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.

The ‘Cats addressed that concern head-on from the gun, as three runners placed themselves smack in the middle of the lead pack. Hessler and Kalea Bartolotto tucked in behind Ohio State’s Addie Engel and some other runners, while Ava Earl gradually moved her way up into the front over the first mile-and-a-half. Hessler and Bartolotto came through 2K in second and fourth, respectively, while Earl was in 22nd and moving into the front. Behind them, Anna Delgado and Fiona Lenth were in 38th and 45th.

NU came through the 1.25-mile marker in third place. It was a pretty fast start for the ‘Cats, who even led the fourth-place Badgers by five points. Given that the race took place on Wisconsin’s home course and that the Badgers almost had all seven of their runners in a pack, it was inevitable that they’d catch Northwestern. However, NU’s early lead over Michigan and Ohio State gave it a legitimate chance to defeat those squads.

The dynamics changed a bit over the middle 2K of the race, which featured some easier rolling hills. At about 3K, Engel and the MSU duo of Katie Osika and Makenna Veen stretched out the 15-runner lead pack. A little over a half-mile later, almost everyone had fallen off that trio, with Hessler clinging to the back of the first chase pack trailing the leaders. However, Earl made a huge move, firmly placing herself in the top 10 for a few minutes. She and Hessler came through 4K together in 10th and eighth, while Bartolotto was 12 seconds behind them in 17th.

The Wildcats appeared to be faring well individually but fell to fifth as a team at 4K because of what was happening in the middle. Michigan’s third-through-sixth runners moved up a combined 51 spots, allowing the Wolverines to jump up to fourth. NU’s back-end scorers had lost a ton of ground on MSU, PSU, Michigan and Wisconsin in a race that was already very stretched out in the middle, which put it in a tough position. Northwestern wasn’t going to get those points at the top because its fastest runners had already gone out quickly and weren’t in a position to challenge Engel and Osika for the individual crown.

What Northwestern did have was an advantage over Ohio State’s No. 4 and No. 5 runners. Despite having Engel and Daniella Santos at the top, the Buckeyes had struggled mightily with their depth throughout the season. Even though NU had lost to OSU at the Loyola Lakefront Invitational in late September, it displayed better depth. With the ‘Cats having put three runners in the top 20 through 4K — challenging Ohio State’s top-end scoring — it seemed like they had a great chance to wrap up fifth place.

NU’s top two scorers did close well. Hessler and Bartolotto held their ground, with the former kicking the last 2K in 7:02 to take fifth in 21:10. Thirty seconds later, Bartolotto earned 16th.

Unfortunately, Earl appeared to hit a physical wall and fell back significantly. Right as she was settling into her move at 4K, the race hit a massive hill. The leaders took full advantage of the ensuing steep downhill, and Earl eventually ran out of gas. She approached the finish line exhausted and valiantly fought through what looked like significant muscle fatigue to crawl through the finish in 74th.

Earl was the sixth scorer on the team, with Lenth (22:15, 41st), Adele Magaud (22:16, 42nd) and Delgado (22:44, 62nd) finishing in front of her. Lenth and Magaud each moved up eight spots, but couldn’t make up the point difference in front of them. The Buckeyes came back to eke out fifth place by just two points, with Gia Napoleon picking off 14 runners in the last 2K to lead the way.

It’s not like this was a horrific race from Northwestern by any means. It was just two points away from tying its highest Big Ten finish in program history. However, given it was well within striking distance of Ohio State and Penn State, which only beat NU by 20 points and spent most of the last 4K losing ground, it’s a missed opportunity. Even without Hightower, Northwestern could have taken fourth in this race if all the pieces had come together. With her, there’s a decent chance NU would be ranked right now.

On the bright side, it marked the culmination of a phenomenal season for Hessler, who broke out as one of the conference’s best runners this year after performing well as a middle scorer on last year’s team. She has a great chance to make noise at the Midwest Regional in Stillwater, Oklahoma in a few weeks.

With No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 17 Iowa State primed to lock up the two automatic bids in the region, Northwestern will need to turn some heads on Nov. 10 to put itself in the mix for a second-straight trip to NCAAs.