Cross Country: Northwestern earns highest regionals finish in 20 years, McCardell qualifies for nationals


Photo courtesy of MaryKate Schoonover

Freshman Fiona Lenth competes at Midwest Regional Championships on Friday. NU placed fourth, in a performance highlighted by senior Rachel McCardell’s third-place finish.

Kate Walter, Reporter

Cross Country

Northwestern has proved this season it would be foolish to count it out. 

The Wildcats finished 13th at the Midwest Regional Championships in 2019. But a lot can change in two years. 

On Friday, the Cats placed fourth at regionals in snowy Iowa City, Iowa, marking their highest finish at that meet since 2001. Senior Rachel McCardell spearheaded the breakthrough performance with a third-place finish, which earned her a spot at the Division I Championships and a place in the history books. Her regionals finish is the best in recent history, higher than All-American Aubrey Roberts, who finished fourth in 2018. 

“It’s been a ton of hard work and commitment to the process to be able to have a result like we had out there today,” coach Jill Miller said. 

NU’s strong showing in the 6K race, where it finished fourth out of 33 teams and second out of four Big Ten teams, reflecting the program’s growth under Miller since she became head coach in 2019. Even in tough conditions, 30-degree temperatures and high winds, which Miller described as “true XC at its finest in terms of the elements,” the Cats demonstrated their resilience.

McCardell described how Miller and assistant coach Connor Boushon helped the team gain confidence in itself and shake the mentality that it’d never qualify for nationals.

“They’re like, look, you’re starting here, but there’s no limit to what you can do,” McCardell said.  “And our job as coaches is to help you realize your potential, both within athletics and outside of it.”

Teams can either qualify for nationals by finishing top-two in the region or receiving an at-large berth. Runners who are not a part of a qualifying team can make the meet through a top-four regionals finish, which McCardell achieved. 

Finishing third in a field of more than 220 runners, the senior crossed the line with a time of 20:49.56 as the first Big Ten athlete to do so. 

“I’m a bit overwhelmed still and processing the fact that I did qualify,” McCardell said. “Something that I thought I was never going to do, which is to compete in a national championship, is actually happening.”

McCardell’s trajectory over her time at NU underscores consistent growth. From finishing 65th at regionals as a freshman to coming in third place as a senior, McCardell has evolved into one of the most successful runners in school history. 

Graduate student Lotte Van der Pol was the Cats’ second finisher with a time of 21:08.15, fighting back after taking a fall at the 3K mark to finish 15th overall. After factoring in team and individual nationals qualification rules, Van der Pol was barely out of the running for the Division I Championships. She said she was devastated to lose out on nationals by such a small margin, but Van der Pol was proud of the team’s result and how “the pieces of the puzzle finally came together.” 

To round out the Cats’ top five, junior Kalea Bartolotto finished 33rd in 21:27.13, senior Olivia Verbeke finished 42nd with a new best time of 21:32.78 and freshman Maggie Mason finished 77th in 22:00.40.

NU was especially proud of its triumph over Illinois, a nationally ranked team for most of the season that beat it last week at the Big Ten Championships by only eight points.

“It’s a big gauge for us, to beat our in-state rival,” says Miller. “That’s the first time we’ve done that in my career. It’s a huge step forward for us.” 

For many of the Cats, the season is not over yet. McCardell will head to Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday to race at nationals. Van der Pol, a Netherlands native, has plans to compete in the European Cross Country Trials to qualify for European Championships in December. Another group will race at the USA Track & Field Cross Country Championships in San Diego on Jan. 8, 2022.

Unlike other fall sports, cross country’s collegiate competition schedule requires yearlong devotion and competition. NU hopes to carry its momentum through the indoor track season, which is quickly approaching. 

Although McCardell was excited about her nationals berth, she said it will be bittersweet to compete without her team. The Cats came close to achieving a team qualification for nationals.

“I don’t think you’re gonna find a team who has improved as much as we did to move up nine spots, likely the first team out of nationals,” Miller said. “While that feels a little bittersweet, we have to look to the past to see how much we’ve grown and get excited for how to make the next leap forward in terms of improvements.” 

This season, the Cats made a name for themselves on the cross country course, even if people continue to count them out. 

“You go from being a team that people don’t even recognize,” McCardell said. “And we still get that. If we had a good day, people say it’s a fluke. But now is the first time you can’t call every race a fluke, we’re doing well.”

“Eventually, it’s just called what it is. And that’s growth.” 

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Twitter: @katewalter03

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