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The ultimate 2023 Northwestern cross country preview

The 'Cats have a chance to do something they've never done in school history: make back-to-back NCAA Championships.

Alec Cohen / Northwestern Athletics

After a qualification for the 2022 NCAA Championships capped off Northwestern cross country’s best season in program history, the team is just four days away from hitting the grass once again. While Jill Miller’s 2023 group will be without Rachel McCardell, a two-time First Team All-Big Ten qualifier who broke five school records on the track during her five years in Evanston, it has a number of rising stars primed to take that top spot. If they can step up in November, Northwestern has a chance to do something it has never done: make back-to-back Nationals trips. Where does the team stand? You came to the right place:

Lineup Overview

Projected lineup: Kalea Bartolotto (Gr.), Ava Earl (Jr.), Anna Hightower (Jr.), Pippa Nuttall (Gr.), Katherine Hessler (Sr.), Adele Magaud (Gr.), Skye Ellis (So.)

Key losses: Rachel McCardell, Ari Marks, Olivia Verbeke

Key additions: Magaud (grad transfer from South Alabama), Nuttall (Georgetown), Rachel Sessa (UMass Lowell), Ella Behrens (WashU)

Northwestern is set to return four of the seven members of its 2022 championship lineup, and three of its top five runners. In comparison to the rest of the Big Ten, that’s not awful. However, many of the competitive teams that the ‘Cats beat to finish fifth in the conference and second in the Midwest Region — Penn State and Minnesota, particularly — are returning even more production. Given that the four teams that finished above Northwestern at the conference meet are all well-positioned to compete for a Big Ten title and top-20 finishes in the country again, it puts even more onus on NU’s returners to take a step forward.

That’s what makes the additions of Adele Magaud and Pippa Nuttall extremely important. With Jill Miller at the helm, Evanston seems like it’s becoming a more attractive destination for grad transfers than it’s ever been, and that’s paid off in a huge way the past two years. In 2022, the key addition was Ari Marks, who was the Division III individual runner-up in her final year at Wellesley. She became a key cog in Northwestern’s lineup, earning a Midwest All-Region honor as the team's second-fastest runner to help the ‘Cats clinch their Nationals bid.

Now, Northwestern has two additions who may not only break into its top seven, but potentially its top five. Magaud finished 35th overall for South Alabama at the NCAA South Regional last year, beating out multiple Alabama and Florida State runners who beat out a few NU athletes a week later in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Nuttall, who ran for Georgetown, was often the eighth runner on a team that finished 2022 as the No. 10 group in the nation. Both should comfortably break 21 minutes in the 6K before the postseason comes around, which would fit right into Northwestern’s lineup.

That depth within the top seven is probably Northwestern’s biggest strength. It’s really hard to even tab someone as the definitive top runner because spots one-through-three (and three-through-six) seem almost interchangeable without considering how everyone fared in summer training. Kalea Bartolotto has the best 6K PR of everyone and hovered around the 20:30 mark multiple times last season, but Hightower and Earl were close behind and could take significant jumps as rising juniors. Magaud, Hessler and Nuttall could also step up as top-three runners if any member of that top trio has a rough day.

That gives NU the ability to race in packs. Given that more than half of the lineup has experience in championship racing, where positioning and tight one-to-five spreads mean everything, that could prove to be crucial in late October and November.

At the same time, though, Northwestern has to supplement that with a consistent, elite scorer as the No. 1 piece in the lineup. What made the ‘Cats so dangerous last year is that in addition to having five runners who were all capable of stepping up as No. 2s or No. 3s when needed, they had McCardell finish as team’s top scorer in every single race she ran in. More importantly, McCardell placed inside the top 10 in five of her six races, with Nationals being the exception. Making up for her departure right out of the gate might be very tough to do.

In championship season last year, Bartolotto demonstrated that she’s capable of taking that role. She placed 11th at Big Tens, and 15th at Regionals two weeks later. If she can emerge as an undisputed top 10 runner in the Midwest with a few others peaking at the right time to finish in the top 20, then Northwestern should finish as a top-two team in the region again and secure an auto-bid to Nationals.

Schedule Overview

Northwestern is set to race seven times this fall, not including the National Championships. As it did last year in Missouri — when it raced there in late September before heading back there for Regionals — the team will get an early-season shot at a course they’ll race at in the postseason: Wisconsin’s. The ‘Cats head up to Madison for the Big Ten Preview on Sept. 9, and the Big Ten Championships are also scheduled there on Oct. 27. The first meet should give NU a rough idea of where it stands in the conference, as well as some areas of improvement it’ll need to emphasize in training to thrive on the course when it matters.

The real early-season test, though, will be the Virginia Invitational out east on Sept. 16. Last year, NU’s first big race was the Gans Creek Classic, which came against a bunch of teams from the Midwest that the ‘Cats would compete against at Regionals a few weeks later. This should be a different animal. Eleven of last year's 31 national qualifiers — and nine of 2022's top 17 teams — will race in Charlottesville that weekend. Because the NCAA will hold the 2023 title meet there this November, a number of elite teams are taking advantage of a chance to get familiar with the hilly course.

This means a lot for Northwestern, in a number of ways. Looking at the big picture, it represents a shift in the program’s identity. Instead of setting a schedule geared toward becoming one of the better teams in its region that can occasionally qualify for the NCAAs, NU is looking to improve on the national stage. Given the recruiting limitations of the school, which doesn’t have a track and field program, that’s unprecedented.

On a more technical level, UVA’s Panorama Farms is one of the hilliest courses in the nation. For the ‘Cats, who struggled on an absolutely grueling Oklahoma State course at the NCAA meet last year, getting some early and high-pressure exposure to a tough course should strengthen them mentally and physically. Northwestern will return there for Nationals if it qualifies, and guess where it has to finish top-two in the Midwest to do that? You guessed it, Stillwater. There's a decent chance Miller's team will have to finish its season with two brutal courses as everyone's season fatigue begins to seep in, which makes it all the more important that NU faces some early adversity on the national level.

It'll be really interesting to see how the coaching staff balances that hill-heavy postseason with the goal of peaking during those races through their construction of the team’s training. After months of strength-based workouts to build fitness, the typical late-season taper in mileage to prepare for these big races involves a heavy emphasis on speed workouts to feel fresh for competitions that are ideally the fastest of the season. While Northwestern will face stiff competition at its best, there’s a really good chance that the times that come up on the clock won’t be PRs, or even reflect how well most of the field races.

It’s not like championship racing tends to be on flatter courses anyway, but taking on two of the toughest ones in the United States at the end of the season after some easier courses in the middle of the season means that Northwestern will have to quickly adapt to a different style of racing in a high-pressure situation. Given NU doesn't have a ton of hills to work with in the Evanston area, that could be a challenge compared to other schools. That being said, it helps that most of the lineup now has experience with racing all the way up to Thanksgiving.

So where does Northwestern stand?

The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's rankings are set to come out on Tuesday, and Northwestern should be one of the top 30 teams. This team doesn't appear to have a ton of starpower, but its depth near the back end of its top five will probably end up being a decisive strength.

However, there are a ton of obstacles that could prevent the 'Cats from earning their second straight NCAA appearance. With the middle of the Big Ten having lost less than Northwestern, and the traditional strength of the Mountain and Great Lakes Regions compared to the Midwest, an at-large bid is going to be hard to come by for NU. Even without superstar Natalie Cook, who transferred to Colorado, Oklahoma State should easily take first at its home course. That means the Wildcats will almost certainly have to finish second in the Midwest Regional to go to Charlottesville.

Looking at their competition, third-place Bradley lost its top three runners to national runner-up New Mexico after former Braves coach Darren Gauson took the job there. The real threat will be Minnesota, which finished fifth in the region in a rebuilding year after it lost superstars Bethany and Megan Hasz to the pros. Now, the Gophers will have the reigning Big Ten Cross Country Freshman of the Year at the top in Ali Weimer to lead five other returning runners. With Utah transfer Lauren Peterson also in the fold, UMN should give the 'Cats a run for their money. Iowa State, which will return all seven of its 2022 Regional scorers (and two top-10 finishers), should also be dangerous.

None of these teams will race in Stillwater before Regionals, which makes this even more intriguing. NU will go toe-to-toe with both Minnesota and ISU (the Gophers at the Big Ten Preview and the conference meet, the Cyclones at the Virginia Invitational), so we'll get a better sense of where the 'Cats stand among that trio.

Iowa State relied on its top-end talent last season, while Minnesota's middle of the lineup packed together and kicked well to score points. Ultimately, Northwestern will have to do both of these things to make up for the fact that it's losing much more production than both of these teams. It sounds like an obvious strategy, but getting everything to click for one race is much easier said than done.

Regardless, I think Earl and Hightower can surprise a lot of people by virtue of having a ton of room to grow as rising juniors who have already succeeded in big-time races. Either of them could form a strong one-two punch with Bartolotto, and contend for an All-Big Ten (top 14) finish in Madison. If that happens, and the grad transfers can consistently race well at the back end of the lineup with a big race or two in the postseason, then I think Northwestern can match its magical 2022 season. After all, this team has one of the sport’s best coaches, and has already done something no one thought was possible.

Prediction: No. 6 in the Big Ten, No. 2 in the Midwest Region, No. 29 at NCAAs