Fresh off its first trip to the NCAA Championship since 2002, Northwestern cross country has finally hit the grass. The ‘Cats kicked off their season with the Flyers Flames Challenge in nearby Romeoville on Sept. 1 before facing Big Ten competition in Madison at last Saturday’s Badger Classic.
The first meet, expectedly, ended in a resounding Northwestern win. As a tune-up for some bigger races down the line, the ‘Cats raced seven other smaller schools from around the area. Chicago State and UIC were the only other Division I teams at the meet, and the Flames finished 27th of 33 teams at last year’s Midwest Regional, while Northwestern placed second.
That may have played a role in prompting head coach Jill Miller to hold her stars out. None of NU’s four returners from its 2022 lineup — Ava Earl, Anna Hightower, Katherine Hessler and Kalea Bartolotto — raced two weeks ago. Consequently, some of the first-years making their Wildcat debuts had a chance to shine.
Anna Delgado of Lansing, Michigan seized the moment. She took the win in the 4K race with a 14:21, 17 seconds before anyone else crossed the line. That’s when fellow first-year Ava Criniti scored, and she was quickly followed by Maddy Whitman, Rachel Sessa and Erin Boler to complete the perfect score of 15. For good measure, Deepti Choudhury came in five seconds after Boler to give Northwestern the top six individual spots in the race.
All in all, it was a good performance that showcased the potential of some of the sophomores and first-years who could snag a top-seven spot on the team. However, the competition paled in comparison to what would lie ahead eight days later. In a de-facto Big Ten preview meet, NU and some other conference powers headed up to Madison, Wisconsin to familiarize themselves with the course where the conference championship will be held in late October.
That made it a great environment for some of the conference’s top runners to make their season debuts. No. 16 Ohio State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 25 Michigan — all teams that qualified for NCAAs in 2022 — each brought multiple runners from their championship lineups to this race. The ‘Cats were no different, as Earl, Hessler and Bartolotto toed the line.
Earl led the way with an 18:03 5K, which marked her first cross country race of that distance since she was in high school, according to TFRRS. That was good enough for third place overall, putting her within six seconds of reigning Big Ten individual champion Addie Engel of OSU. Bartolotto came in fifth, as she finished 12 seconds after her junior teammate.
Unsurprisingly, Hessler came in next with an 18:20 and a ninth-place finish. But the big shock was Delgado, who took the No. 4 spot on the team and 13th place in the race with an 18:30. She even beat some runners from other schools who will likely be key components of their top sevens. Fiona Lenth (18:50), Whitman (18:51) and grad transfer Adele Magaud (19:02) rounded out Northwestern’s scoring.
Northwestern finished with 53 points, putting itself in third place out of seven teams, narrowly falling behind Michigan and Wisconsin. The result is great, but may not mean too much in the long run by itself. Given this was the first race of the season for many runners, almost everyone ran far off their personal bests. The biggest example of this was Ohio State’s Danielle Santos, who placed fourth at 2022 Big Tens and defeated Rachel McCardell, but came 30th in Madison with a much weaker field. No one is training for this race, and the postseason meets that teams are gearing their plans toward are still about two months away. Additionally, no Big Ten team at the Badger Classic ran its entire top lineup.
So, what can be taken away? Northwestern’s large, 40-point gap over Minnesota is encouraging. The Golden Gophers held a No. 4 preseason ranking in the Midwest Region, one spot below the ‘Cats at No. 3. While star sophomore Ali Weimer did not race, Minnesota’s No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 runners from its Big Ten Championship top seven did. Not only did Northwestern soundly beat Minnesota: it displayed early signs of top-end talent. Earl and Bartolotto’s top-five finishes speak for themselves, even though it was a slow race. Even if Weimer is an individual title contender come November at the Midwest Regional, the Wildcats could be in a good position to beat the Gophers if their top two runners can mirror last Saturday’s result when it matters most.
Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to concretely assess Northwestern until its lineup works itself out and races together. Next Saturday could be a great opportunity to do that, as the ‘Cats will head east to UVA to take on elite competition at the Virginia Invitational. Because the national meet is set to take place in Charlottesville, many of the nation’s best teams will be there to take advantage of a chance to get to know the tough Panorama Farms course.