The Wildcats are ranked 13th in the Midwest region, but they think they can do better.
The NCAA Midwest Regional Championships take place Friday at Iowa State. Northwestern is sending its best seven runners to compete, and coach April Likhite said they constitute a top-10 team despite their ranking.
Last year the Cats finished fourth in the region, a proud accomplishment, but they did so without their top runner. Audrey Huth was a senior at the time and collapsed on the course about 100 meters short of the finish line.
This year the Cats face a similar obstacle: their best runner, senior Michelle Moriset, will not be competing in the race due to injury.
“We had hoped we would be in a different place,” Likhite said. “We are not racing Michelle. Our ranking is much lower than what it has been in years.”
Although she admits the Cats have had to readjust to unexpected changes this season, like the absence of Moriset, Likhite said the setbacks don’t matter because anything can happen in a big meet like this one.
Two seniors, one sophomore and four freshmen will represent the purple and white on Friday. Only one of them, senior Libby Kocha, has ever competed in the regional championships before. The rest will make their debut together.
Freshman Jena Pianin secured her spot on the regional squad last Friday by being NU’s top finisher at the Northern Illinois Huskie Open. She said she feels optimistic and assured about the Cats’ ability to work together as a team.
“I would be nothing without my teammates,” Pianin said. “It’s always a team effort. It’s never about one particular person.”
In order to earn individual All-Region honors, runners must finish in the top 25. Only the top two teams and the top-four individual finishers outside those teams advance to the NCAA National Championships. Likhite said she is not expecting NU to move forward to the national stage due to its injury record but thinks a couple of her top runners have a shot at earning regional accolades.
“I’m confident to say that we’re a top 10 team right now,” Likhite said. “I think we can be top seven. … We’re just as good as a whole as the team we brought last year.”
What the Cats lack are runners like Moriset who would be able to finish in the top 10 individually. However, Likhite said their third, fourth and fifth runners are stronger than the runners in those positions last year. Her goal is for every one of her runners to finish in the top 50 individually.
Both Likhite and Pianin are confident in NU’s seniors’ ability to lead the team. Likhite said the freshmen will also play a huge role in Cats’ success. They have raw talent and have acquired experience at big meets this season that have equipped them well for races like this.
Pianin said being on a team that is made up predominantly of freshmen shows its potential for the future.
“It’s so exciting to think about where we are now and how we’re freshmen at this regional meet,” Pianin said. “Can you imagine what is going to happen in the next four years?”
Although NU’s team is young and has a very promising future, they must focus first on the task at hand. After a season of injuries and a fair share of inexperience and disappointment, the Cats have arrived at the regional championships having learned from their mistakes. They’re ready to prove their ranking wrong.
“I feel like all seven girls represent our entire team and they really take that to heart and use that to motivate themselves along the way,” Likhite said. “I think it will be a great day for us.”
Email: [email protected]