Cross Country: Northwestern places 30th at its first NCAA Championship since 2002, concludes record-breaking season


Photo Courtesy of Megan Slamkowski

Sophomores Ava Earl and Anna Hightower run in a race. The two competed in NU’s first appearance at NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championship since 2002.

Kate Walter, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern finished 30th in its first appearance at the NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championships since 2002, capping off a historic season for the Wildcats.  

While the Cats had hoped to perform better at the Big Dance, Coach Jill Miller said she is still proud of their record-breaking efforts this season. 

“I know it’s hard to end on a note that you maybe didn’t achieve the goals that you wanted to at the national championship,” Miller said. “But as we look back, there are so many historical moments for this group.” 

In the women’s 6,000-meter, graduate student Rachel McCardell crossed the line with a time of 20:43 — good for 116th place — as NU’s leading runner. Last season, McCardell qualified for the national meet as an individual and took 82nd. 

Graduate student Ari Marks was next, finishing 161st with a time of 21:01, followed by junior Katherine Hessler in 173rd and sophomore Ava Earl in 195th. Senior Kalea Bartolotto, sophomore Anna Hightower and graduate student Olivia Verbeke rounded out the Cats’ performance, placing 218th, 223rd, and 244th, respectively. 

During its last trip to the Big Dance in 2002, NU also took 30th, with Rachel Evjen finishing first for the team in 89th. 

Earl said the team took away many lessons from competing on the national stage. 

“It was a huge learning experience,” Earl said. “We didn’t execute the way we wanted to, but I think that we really went in with a great headspace that we have had all season.” 

NC State defended its 2021 national title on Saturday by placing first in a field of 31 teams, with junior Katelyn Tuohy winning the women’s race. New Mexico and Alabama finished second and third, respectively. Oklahoma State, who took first to NU’s second at the Midwest Regional Championships, finished fourth overall.  The Cats were one of five teams in the Big Ten to qualify for Nationals. 

Miller said the field at the meet was incredibly deep, particularly with runners using an additional year of eligibility earned through NCAA’s pandemic rules.  

Saturday’s race concluded a record-breaking season for the Cats. After a string of solid performances, NU broke into the national rankings at No. 29 in October for the first time since 2002. 

The Cats took fifth at Big Ten Championship in their first meet of the postseason, marking their highest finish at the conference meet since 1986. NU punched its ticket to the Big Dance with a second-place finish at the Midwest Regional Championships, where four Cats also received All-Region honors — the most in program history. 

While the team fell short of its goals at the NCAA Championship, Earl said she is proud to be part of its history-making season.

“I would so much rather have like a bad race on this team than like a million good races on any other,” Earl said.

The past few seasons under Miller have signified impressive growth for NU, after placing 13th — near the bottom of the rankings — at both the Regional meet and the Big Ten Championship as recently as 2019.

Miller said she encouraged her runners to apply lessons from the NCAA Championship and the rest of the season to other aspects of their life. 

“Athletics is something we do to teach them how to be successful in life,” Miller said. “(It teaches) how to achieve things collectively as a group that maybe nobody else thinks that they can because of a big vision and commitment towards a collective goal.”

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Twitter: @katewalter03

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