Cross Country: Northwestern refocuses ahead of Regionals Friday, hopes for National’s qualification


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

Cross Country

“Energy In, Energy Up.”

Northwestern adopted this motto from coach Jill Miller ahead of Friday’s Midwest Regional Championships, as it tackles the final stretch of its postseason and aims to qualify for National Championships.

“I think [the team] has done a great job of focusing their energy inward, on supporting one another in very healthy ways,” Miller said. 

The Wildcats will travel to Iowa City, Iowa, for the NCAA Midwest Regional Cross Country Championships, with hopes of qualifying for Nationals later this month.

At Iowa, NU will not only have to battle brutal forecasted conditions, with high winds and precipitation expected, but also conference foes Illinois and reigning Big Ten champion Minnesota. 

Coming off a solid performance at the Big Ten Championships, highlighted by senior Rachel McCardell’s fifth-place finish and the team’s seventh-place finish, the Cats are hungry for more. 

“If there’s a moment to show up, it’s now,” McCardell said. “This is our chance to prove some people wrong, to prove that we are a team to look out for.”

NU is currently ranked fifth in the Midwest Region, a sizable improvement from last year, when its highest ranking over the course of the season was 11th. 

There are two ways the team can qualify for Nationals, which will be held in Tallahassee, Florida, on Nov. 20. The Cats will either need to finish in the top two at Regionals for an automatic bid or receive one of the 13 at-large bids based on season performance.

In addition to team qualification, 38 individuals are chosen to race at Nationals, and the top-four finishers at each Regionals meet, who are not included in the team qualification, automatically qualify as well. Two runners from the national field are then selected as at-large individuals. After her First-Team All-Big Ten performance, only the third NU runner in history to achieve this honor, McCardell is a contender for Nationals.

The Cats have failed to qualify for Nationals in past seasons, and the last appearance by an NU runner at the meet was in 2018 with Aubrey Roberts’ All-American performance. Despite this history, Miller senses big things on the horizon for her team. 

“Progress has not been linear,” she said. “But what I’m most proud of is this team’s ability to pull together, to learn to be assertive of one another, to continue to push each individual toward growth that then ends collectively in a huge movement forward for the team.”

In 2019, Miller’s first season as head coach, the team finished 13th out of 33 teams at Regionals. The 2020 meet was canceled due to the pandemic. 

This year, in the team’s third season under Miller’s leadership, the Cats are setting their sights higher. 

“You really can come up from the bottom and move up to the top with a lot of passion and hard work,” McCardell said. “This season has definitely been a testament to that.”

And NU is indeed on the rise. The Cats placed second at the Hawkeye Invitational and the ISU Redbird Invitational, and they took third at the Penn State National Open.

McCardell has shined during her senior season. In addition to her top-five finish at the Big Ten, she won both the Hawkeye and ISU Redbird Invitationals and received Big Ten Athlete of the Week accolades after her performance at the latter.  

Graduate student Lotte Van der Pol and junior Kalea Bartolotto will also contribute to the team’s effort. The two finished 22nd and 48th at Regionals, respectively. 

So for now, NU is looking onward and upward. The team is sticking to Miller’s motto and channeling its season-long energy into one last shot. 

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Twitter: @katewalter03

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