Cross Country: No. 29 Northwestern places fifth at Big Ten Championships, marking highest finish since 1986


Photo courtesy of Megan Slamkowski

Rachel McCardell, Kalea Bartolotto and Ari Marks run in a pack. They were Northwestern’s top three runners at Big Ten Championships, leading the team to a fifth-place finish.

Kate Walter, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s been 36 years since Northwestern last saw this level of success. 

After breaking into the national rankings for the first time since 2002, the No. 29 Wildcats placed fifth at Big Ten Championships on Friday for their highest finish at the conference meet since 1986.

Graduate student Rachel McCardell and senior Kalea Bartolotto led this historic effort, earning All-Big Ten honors with their seventh (20:23) and eleventh (20:29) place finishes in the 6K. 

“It’s just very validating that we have been doing the right things, like (we’ve been) right to trust the process,” McCardell said of the team’s historic performance. “And it just confirms why me, Hannah (Hall), Olivia (Verbeke), all of us chose to come back for this fifth year.”

McCardell’s finish represents a 56 place improvement since her 63rd place finish at the Big Ten Championships her freshman year. Bartolotto snagged a personal best time at the championship meets and earned All-Big Ten second team honors. 

Graduate student Ari Marks crossed the line in 16th place with a time of 20:39. Sophomores Anna Hightower (21:12) and Ava Earl (21:14) finished within seconds of each other in 40th and 43rd, respectively, mirroring their performances at NU’s last contest: the Bradley Pink Classic. 

Coach Jill Miller said her runners “gave us everything they had,” noting that the team’s score of 116 points was closer to first place No. 23 Michigan State with 78 points than sixth place Penn State with 159 points. 

In just the past three seasons, NU has climbed eight places in its Big Ten finishes, finishing 13th as recently as 2019. The Cats placed three runners in the top 20 on Friday, exceeding last season’s Big Ten’s Performance when McCardell was NU’s sole top-20 finisher and the team took seventh overall. 

Coach Jill Miller said the team is proud of this growth and is ready to keep improving. 

“We’ve really climbed to the upper echelon in our conference,” Miller said. “So I’m really proud of all of them for all of the work that it’s taken to get us this far, but it leaves them wanting more.

The Cats have the chance to earn their second-ever Nationals berth since 2002 at the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships in less than two weeks.

Currently ranked second in the Midwest region, only falling behind nationally No. 3 Oklahoma State, NU will have to hold its ground against other teams to achieve automatic qualification for NCAA Championships. 

“Oklahoma State is a team that is going to battle for the National Championship ultimately,” Miller said. “But teams like Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa State, Bradley are going to show up ready to run because everybody wants that second spot, the auto bid to the National Championship.” 

Regionals are held at Gans Creek in Colombia, Missouri –  a course the Cats are already familiar with after racing at the Gans Creek Classic earlier this season. 

McCardell said NU is proud of its historic Big Ten’s performance and wants to build upon its success in the future. 

“The vision is that next year and years after we move up past just fifth place and that, you know, fifth place seems (like) old news,” McCardell said. “While we’re really excited about the success that we’ve been having, we do view it as a stepping stone for the program and where it’s going.”

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Twitter: @katewalter03

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