Cross Country: Wildcats prep for key early season meet

Alex Lederman, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern faces its biggest challenge of the young season Friday at the Notre Dame Invitational in South Bend, Indiana — its most important meet yet.

“This event will give us a good idea of how fit we really are,” coach April Likhite said. “It gives us the opportunity to run against schools all over the country from all different regions, and it’s our first opportunity to run against teams that could possibly help us earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship.”

The Wildcats have already competed in two events this season, the Badger Season Opener on Sept. 5 and the Big Ten Preview Meet on Sept. 20, placing second of seven and third of five respectively.

Even though Friday will be their third meet, Likhite said it’s the first race that can have a true impact on NU’s season. The primary purpose of the first two was simply to get early experience.

At Notre Dame, NU squares off against tough competition, including No. 12 New Mexico, No. 30 Penn State and vote-receiving schools Southern Methodist, North Carolina State, Bringham Young, Toledo, Ohio State and Princeton.

“After this weekend,” Likhite said, “we’re going to really sit down and process. We’re going to see a couple of Big Ten schools there, and we’ll know ‘This is where we are now, and this is where we need to be shooting for in the next month.’”

A strong performance can inch NU closer to its seasonal goals: Finishing in the top five in both the Big Ten and regionally, and earning a spot at the NCAA Championship.

“Our conference right now,” Likhite said, “we’ve got No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 16 Wisconsin. That’s so exciting for us to be part of such a powerful conference, but at the same time it makes it challenging for us.”

Still, the season is a hopeful one for NU. The Cats are led by a duo of talented sophomores who already have substantial college experience. Both Andrea Ostenso and Jena Pianin were key contributors to last year’s squad after a season riddled with injuries. Each ran in six races, with Ostenso finishing in the top-three in all of them.

“We were very young last year,” Likhite said. “Our young girls raced in a lot of big meets. With the situation we were in last year where we lost two of our seniors early on, our hope was that the experience Andrea and Jena got would hopefully pay off this year.

“Andrea is in a great place right now,” she continued. “She was in all the Big Ten meets for us last year. Same with Jena. They were freshmen, they were in every big meet for us and now they have that experience under their belt. I think that’s really going to be in our favor.”

And the Cats will be even younger this year; Likhite said she expects freshmen Isabel Seidel and Kinsey Harmon to be important players for the Cats this year.

“It’s always interesting following the freshman journey through their first collegiate season,” she said. “We never want to put too much pressure on them, but we really like two of them.”

Additionally, Likhite said juniors Elena Barham and Camille Blackman, each of whom she said had a strong track season and summer, will play crucial roles for NU this season.

“We had a great four weeks before classes started,” Likhite said. “We have some really good leadership going on within the program, and the girls, they’re excited. They seem happy. We’re in a good place right now.”

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