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Northwestern outdoor track post-mortem 2022-23: A new era dawns

The ‘Cats won’t need to rebuild because they’re already reloaded.

Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern’s historic cross country season — in which it qualified for the NCAA National Championship for the first time since 2002 — was marked by the immense depth at the top end of NU’s lineup, and that remained true on the track this spring.

For a team full of distance runners, the Wildcats were still able to make noise, as they were ranked as high as No. 18 in the national 5,000-meter Event Squad rankings. Not only was this monumental because it was the highest mark in program history, but it was also significant because three of the four runners who contributed to the 16:23 average 5,000-meter time considered in the ranking will return in the fall.

Success in that specific event, compared to the more speed-oriented 1,500, is typically a decent indicator of how runners will fare in cross country assuming they remain healthy and build enough strength over the summer to withstand two months of competitive racing. Thus, given Northwestern runners can’t compete for conference and national accolades on the oval, displaying that much depth was likely a key goal.

The ‘Cats had six runners break 17 minutes for the 5,000 — and that didn’t even include graduate student Ari Marks, who was a key scorer on the grass last fall and still has another season of eligibility for cross country. Five of them will return. In the history of the program, per TFRRS, the team hasn’t had more than four athletes break that 17-minute barrier in a single season.

It started with Rachel McCardell, who built off a winter where she broke Northwestern’s indoor mile and 3,000 records by smashing two more program bests. The grad student displayed her incredible range by opening her season with a 33:52 10,000-meter time at the Raleigh Relays. She dropped a 15:50 5,000 time at the Bryan Clay Invitational a few weeks later.

This season capped off a stellar career for McCardell, who will leave Evanston as the undisputed greatest distance runner in school history. In addition to her four recently set records, she’s earned two All-Big Ten First Team selections, two NCAA XC Championship appearances and the highest finish by a Wildcat ever at the NCAA Midwest XC Regional Meet (third place).

Yet, because of its depth, Northwestern likely won’t need a hard reset even though it’s going to lose McCardell. For a team that hasn’t experienced much success at all, that’s really hard to believe. But, because of its sophomore duo of Anna Hightower and Ava Earl, there’s a real chance that NU will have just as much top-end talent next season.

The two of them have already dipped well under 21 minutes in the standard cross country 6K distance, and they both dropped their 5,000 times under 16:30. Their 5K bests this season slot around the No. 20 individual spot in the Big Ten as of May 16, right behind athletes like Ohio State’s Andrea Kuhn and Wisconsin’s Samantha Stieve, both rising seniors who placed in the top 15 at last year’s Big Ten Cross Country Championship. Earl and Hightower also possess great range, as they’ve already run a 4:49 mile and a 4:27 1,500, respectively. It’s a shame that Northwestern isn’t eligible to run at the conference meet, because they and McCardell would have likely qualified for at least one event.

That doesn’t even include first-year Mia Mraz, who only ran one 6K in the fall and still ran a 16:59 5,000 this spring. She wasn’t part of Northwestern’s championship lineup on the grass, but then again, neither was Earl nor Hightower in 2021. With a strong summer, she could become a key cog in coach Jill Miller’s lineup.

Ultimately, the range Northwestern displayed on the track demonstrates that it isn’t as upperclassman-heavy as it may have seemed in the fall when McCardell, Marks and junior Kalea Bartolotto took the reins. However, that appears to be the case for most of the Big Ten’s top teams.

For context, here’s a glance at what the other teams in the conference are returning from their 2022 cross country varsity sevens. I charted the average years of experience left for the returning members of each squad’s lineup (i.e. one year for a rising senior, two for a rising junior and so on) and looked at teams’ average individual finish at the Big Ten Championship last October. Keep in mind that a lower average finish is better, meaning that the bottom right corner of the graph is where the younger and faster teams are.

Also, the largest dots signify that all seven members of a team’s lineup are returning; it was tough to visually depict the significant difference between returning seven runners and bringing back four. Northwestern will likely return five runners, assuming McCardell and Olivia Verbeke leave.

It’s clear that Ohio State, led by reigning Big Ten champ and rising junior Addie Engel, is in a great spot for the next two years. Without any first-years in the lineup, Northwestern is actually one of the older teams in the conference when it comes to age, but losing McCardell won’t prevent the ‘Cats from having any individual contenders.

That’s good news at a glance, but it doesn’t mean Northwestern doesn’t have serious work ahead trying to compensate for the loss of the seventh-fastest finisher in the Big Ten. If one were to swap the varsity seniors’ point totals from the conference title race with the next-fastest returning runner outside of the top five on each team, this is how the score would’ve looked:

In real life, Northwestern finished fifth with 116 points. Looking at both graphs, it’s clear that the traditional powerhouses are in a tier of their own, and this doesn’t even account for incoming first-years, redshirts or the possible performance jumps the Spartans and Buckeyes may take given that they’re pretty young.

Still, there’s a large chunk of teams from Wisconsin to Minnesota who could finish in a variety of orders. Some of these teams, like the Badgers, will depend on the tactical experience and the strength of a senior-heavy lineup. Others, like Penn State, will bank on sophomores stepping into a bigger role and becoming more consistent. Northwestern could find itself relying on both of those qualities.

As Earl and Hightower’s spring seasons have demonstrated, support at the top won’t be a massive problem going forward. As long as the ‘Cats can improve on the back end — whether it comes from rising junior Katherine Hessler or the emergence of rising sophomores like Mraz or Skye Ellis — they’ll at least be in the running for a top-five spot in the Big Ten come autumn.