Cross Country: Wildcats approaches Big Ten’s with “Christmas morning” mindset, gratitude for Miller’s leadership


Photo courtesy of MaryKate Schoonover

Senior Rachel McCardell competes earlier in the 2020-21 season. McCardell has been one of the Wildcats’ top finishers this season.

Kate Walter , Reporter

It’s championship season for Northwestern cross country — or the most wonderful time of the year, as the team likes to call it. 

“Coach Jill (Miller) always says Big Ten’s are like Christmas morning,” said senior Rachel McCardell, one of NU’s top finishers this season. “We’ve done the work, and now it’s time to reap the rewards and have fun with it.” 

The Wildcats will kick off the postseason competing in the 6K distance at the Big Ten Cross Country Championships, which will be held at Penn State on (or beginning) Friday. NU faces stiff conference competition in University Park, Penn., facing nationally ranked teams No. 6 Minnesota, No. 9 Michigan, No. 20 Michigan State, No. 22 Wisconsin and No. 25  Illinois. As of Oct. 18, the Cats are unranked nationally but are fifth in the Midwest region, trending up two slots from their previous ranking.

The deep field of the Big Ten, which Miller said is one of the most competitive conferences in the nation, will pose challenges for the Cats. But Miller feels her team is ready to meet the moment. 

“Our training has progressed so much from even a year, two years ago,” she said. “This is what we’ve been working for.”

Historically, NU has finished in the middle or rear of the pack at the Big Ten Championships. The Cats placed seventh out of 10 teams in the 2020-21 competition and 13th out of 14 teams in 2019. 

Friday marks Miller’s third Big Ten Championships at NU since she became head coach in 2019. Junior Kalea Bartolotto said Miller has “fostered such a positive and exciting team culture” during her tenure. 

While the Cats may have been counted out in the past, Miller has focused on teaching her runners to believe in themselves and their training. McCardell recounted a moment, during Miller’s first season in 2019, when she asked the team why it had set low expectations for the Big Ten Championships. 

“Our response was, ‘We’re not good enough to be any better,’” McCardell said. “And the past three years, she has absolutely knocked that out of our brains … (Miller) instilled in us a sense of confidence that we didn’t have as a program before her.” 

So far, the season’s results have been evidence of NU’s progress, despite a rocky performance at the Joe Piane Invitational. The team placed second at both the Hawkeye Invitational and the ISU Redbird Invitational, with a third-place finish at the Penn State National Open.

The Cats also have the benefit of having already raced on the championship course two weeks ago at Penn State. Graduate student Lotte Van der Pol said she was “grateful” to race on the course ahead of time.

McCardell said the race provided the team an advantageous opportunity to scope out the course.

“(Running at the Penn State National Open) gives a lot of insight on race strategy and tactics we’ll have to employ going into (the championship),” McCardell said.

NU has the chance to make the Big Ten Championships a holiday to remember and carry that momentum all the way across the finish line. To do so, it will have to embody what Miller has been working toward over her time with the Cats. 

“Jill’s here to make history,” Barttolotto said. “And I think we’re all in support of that.”

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