Mix of veterans and good recruits should keep Wildcats on fast track

Cason Bufe

In the words of coach April Ecke, the Northwestern cross country team was “on fire” a few weeks into the 1999 season.

The Wildcats had won three of their first four races during that span, and all signs pointed to a strong showing at the season-ending Big Ten championships.

But after losing No. 1 runner Cherisse Lancaster after the fourth meet, the Cats stumbled to a disappointing seventh-place finish at the Big Ten championships in State College, Pa.

“When we lost Cherisse, it was tough,” Ecke said. “We were on fire in September. It’s tough losing No. 1.”

Despite the loss of Lancaster, the Cats were helped out by the performance of sophomore Rachel Evjen. Last year, Evjen finished 25th in the NCAA District 5 meet and earned All-District honors. NU placed sixth as a team at the meet and missed a chance to advance.

With Lancaster’s health still questionable going into the fall season, Ecke said Evjen is one of the runners she will look to lead the Cats in 2000.

Ecke also said she will count on sophomore Karen Rogers for leadership next year. Rogers led NU by finishing 19th at the Big Tens.

“I will look to those two to really lead the pack,” Ecke said. “Last year, we moved up. At districts we went from 12th last year to 6th this year.”

In the spring, both Rogers and Evjen qualified to run in the well-known Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. Rogers also finished second in the Texas Relays in Austin.

Ecke is also relying on Emily Blakeslee and Nora Colligan, two incoming freshmen from Rockford (Mich.) High School — one of the top high school cross country teams in the nation last year.

Both Blakeslee and Colligan were all-state selections with Blakeslee earning the accolade for the third time.

Ecke said she expects both freshmen to be two of NU’s top five runners in the fall, and Rogers is looking forward to running with a deeper team next season.

“I’m excited for the recruits and the runners who are returning,” Rogers said. “It’s always good to have competition within the team. If everybody can stay healthy and have a good summer training, we can do really well.”

Last year Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota took the top three spots in the conference championships, respectively. NU had defeated strong teams like Michigan earlier last season and could see itself building on that success.

Rogers thinks the Cats can creep up on the competition next year.

“April always says we surprise people because we’re a new program,” Rogers said. “We want to maintain it next year and be a team that demands respect from other teams. We just want to improve.”

Improvement is the buzz word for Ecke and her runners going into the 2000 season, and the coach has big plans for a program that is only three years old: the NCAA championship meet.

“My long term goal is to get these girls to nationals,” Ecke said. “It would be a big feat to do it in three years, but I think we can do it.”