Cross Country: Pianin shines, Wildcats struggle against tough field at Pre-Nationals

Max Schuman, Reporter

Powered by an impressive performance by sophomore Jena Pianin, Northwestern clawed its way to 31st place in the team standings at Saturday’s Pre-Nationals Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The meet, which was held on a 6K course that will also host the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Championships, brought together 43 of the nation’s finest teams and nearly 300 runners.

Pianin was able to push through the crowd in the largest meet the Cats have attended this year to finish tied for 33rd with a time of 21:21.0. She set a personal record in a 6K race and bested her season-best at that length by more than 30 seconds.

“Jena was fabulous,” coach April Likhite said. “She started fast and ran a smart race. She was right where we needed her to be.”

With the coaches pushing for an aggressive start to the race, Pianin knew she was set up for a big run right from the beginning.

“I got out fast,” Pianin said. “Even in a big meet like that I knew I was in a good place from the start.”

Even with Pianin’s strong performance, the gap between her finish and those of her teammates limited NU’s ceiling in the final team standings.

“We came into the meet thinking that we could finish top-20, or on a good day for us finish top-15, so we were a bit disappointed,” Likhite said.

Sophomore Andrea Ostenso came in at 22:14.4 to claim 124th, a disappointing finish in the eyes of her coach.

“We wanted Jena and Andi to finish in the top 40,” Likhite said. “The gap between them shouldn’t be that large. We’re counting on the two of them being big for us going forward.”

Junior Camille Blackman pulled in 167th-place with a time of 22:31.6. Both Ostenso and Blackman finished well off the pace of their 6K season-bests, set at the Big Ten Preview meet in September.

Junior Elena Barham finished 182nd with a time of 22:36.2, and freshman Isabel Seidel closed out the scorers for the Cats with a time of 23:05.0, good for 232nd.

The meet was a national measuring-stick for NU, with six nationally-ranked teams in the field. No.4 Georgetown claimed first place, with No. 3 Oregon, No. 1 Michigan, No. 7 Colorado and No. 29 NC State rounding out the top five.

With the Big Ten Championships rapidly approaching, the Cats also had an opportunity to measure themselves against other Big Ten teams in the field. NU was the lowest-placing of the four Big Ten teams in attendance, behind Michigan, Penn State and Purdue.

“We’ve got to improve our 3-4-5 spots, whoever they may be,” Likhite said. “We’ve had a day to process the meet and we’ve talked about it and we’re going to refocus for the Big Ten meet.”

Meanwhile, Pianin will look to build on her showing going into championship season.

“Mentally, it’s preparing for all the scenarios that can come up in big meets,” she said of her preparation for the upcoming championship meets. “Physically, I’ll train hard, stay fit, and work on my kick, because that’ll be big when it matters.”

This meet was the final meet for the Cats’ top runners before the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City on Nov. 2. NU will send a contingent to the Illini Open in Champaign on Oct. 24 with the goal of qualifying several additional runners for the conference meet.

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