Heading into its Midwest Regional in Stillwater, Oklahoma last Friday, Northwestern didn’t have a ton to lose. With No. 5 Oklahoma State and No. 18 Iowa State having established themselves as the prohibitive favorites to lock up the region’s two automatic bids to the NCAA Championship, the Wildcats were projected to finish a distant third. It appeared that they wouldn’t have much of a chance at securing an at-large bid barring anything crazy.
Yet, that may have helped the ‘Cats race more freely at Oklahoma State. Northwestern finished third in the 32-team field, but the top of its lineup thrived. Ava Earl, Kalea Bartolotto and Katherine Hessler earned All-Region honors, with Earl punching a ticket to Nationals in Charlottesville, Virginia on Nov. 18 thanks to her eighth-place finish.
The six-kilometer course at Stillwater is one of the nation’s toughest, largely due to the steepness and length of its inclines and downhills. Northwestern struggled on the terrain when it raced there for the NCAA title meet last year. Given Oklahoma State’s experience with its home course, the favorite possessed that advantage in addition to its abundance of talent.
However, in what might have been a concerted effort to take a shot at shaking up the team standings, the Wildcats got out hard. The 6K course starts out with a wide, steep decline, which Northwestern’s top seven runners used to firmly position themselves in the immediate chase pack. DePaul’s Olivia Borowiak and Nina Amicon had tried to create even more chaos by separating themselves from the field, but NU had a huge pack just a second behind them. A little over a kilometer in, Northwestern’s entire lineup was within two seconds of each other, ranging from fourth place to 16th. That, of course, put the Wildcats in first place.
As the chase pack went through the first-mile marker in a little under 5:10, it hit some of the rolling hills. Northwestern’s back scorers were starting to fall behind, but Hessler, Earl, Bartolotto and Anna Delgado were still in the race’s top 25 through 2,500 meters.
The bigger problem was that the Cowgirls were putting the stamp on a swift response after a conservative start. Right when Earl was about to lead a slew of runners (including Hessler) up a steep hill, Oklahoma State’s Taylor Roe and Molly Born calmly placed themselves in front at the climb’s base and took control of the chase pack. Farther back in the race, Iowa State’s second-through-sixth runners each moved up more than 20 spots. Just like that, through 2,830 meters, Oklahoma State had taken the lead, with the Cyclones hot on Northwestern’s tail.
What was really encouraging for Northwestern’s top scorers, though, was that they responded. As the chase pack ripped apart at around 3K, Hessler stuck with a group of around five runners up near the front, while Earl, Bartolotto and Delgado didn’t cede ground. That really paid off about 400 meters later, when Earl latched to the back of Hessler’s pack as it swallowed up Borowiak.
And then, at 3,700 meters, Earl made a move into the lead up one of the course’s steepest hills. As Born and Roe covered it, Hessler challenged those three near the front. Everything looked good on camera, but ISU continued to dominate the middle. Having moved up another combined 35 places, Iowa State took over the No. 2 spot.
That didn’t stop Earl from threatening the individual crown, as she positioned herself in the lead as late as 800 meters left in the race. Hessler sat between two packs in no-woman’s-land, and Bartolotto was clinging to the back of the next one.
The race’s final kilometer was where Oklahoma State’s top athletes really separated themselves. Roe, Born and individual champion Billah Jepkirui took advantage of a hill and an ensuing bend to create significant separation. The Cowgirls ended up putting three runners in the top five and five in the top 12 en route to an incredible winning score of 30 points.
Nevertheless, Earl closed fairly well given that she had led multiple packs of runners for a decent portion of the race. With Bartolotto kicking hard right behind her, Earl finished in 20:42 for eighth place while her grad student teammate came in ninth a second later. Hessler, who dropped out of the top 10 following that final surge, came 13th in 20:47.
All three earned All-Region honors, with Earl and Bartolotto doing so for the second straight year. Because Earl was one of the four fastest runners who didn’t race for a top-two team in the region, she automatically earned an individual berth to NCAAs. Earl is the first individual Nationals qualifier from Northwestern since Rachel McCardell in 2021.
Behind the trio of Earl, Bartolotto and Hessler, Delgado came in 49th (21:42) and Fiona Lenth took 76th (22:07) as the final scorers. While the large gap between the Wildcats’ top three and next two wasn’t the only thing that did them in — Iowa State beat them by 80 points — it didn’t help that Delgado and Lenth fell back a combined 36 spots in the final 1,100 meters. In fairness, though, finishing in the top 50 for a race like this is a lot to ask from a first-year in Delgado and someone who’s already enjoyed significant breakout races in Lenth.
At the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, Maddy Whitman and Adele Magaud both finished in the top 100 in 22:13 and 22:22, respectively. Northwestern finished with 155 points in total and third in the Midwest Region overall, which is the team's third-best finish since 2000.
Earl will head out to Charlottesville next Saturday to conclude her season at the University of Virginia’s Panorama Farms Cross Country Course. The gun for the women’s race will go off at 9:20 a.m. CT, and you can watch the NCAA Championships on ESPNU or the ESPN App.