Cross Country on the Last Leg of the Season

Michigan State’s cross country team is down to the last leg of the season, literally (and no pun intended). The No. 1 ranked women and No. 17 ranked men ran last week in the Great Lakes Regional meet to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country National Championship this Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana.

While this is the race that it all comes down to, according to head coach Walt Drenth the teams have already met the outcomes they put forth in the beginning of the year.

“We’ve met objectives all year,” Drenth said. “We’ve really learned through the course of the year to just control the things we can control.”

The women are on the verge of an undefeated season, which is quite the feet in cross country, but it is more about who you beat. In the end, it is not too different from the College Football playoff. Kinda.

The team is solid from their front pack leaders Leah O’Connor and Rachele Schulist to the rest of their top seven, led by experienced racers such as Julia Otwell and Sara Kroll. The women typically place their five scorers in the top 25 of the race, which makes the difference when it comes to scoring.

Another impressive advantage to MSU’s team? They are injury free. To have almost a perfect season without even a sign of shin splints is a testament to how mature this team really is.

“That’s a gift from god,” O’Connor said. “Because you can’t control that. We’re definitely smart; we don’t over push, we eat well, we get our rest. We kind of treat ourselves like old women most of the time. We hold ourselves to that standard.”

Another helpful factor in the no-injury streak? Living together. Not only are they a team while competing, but also at home — watching what they eat, how long they stay up, and their physical activities help them work together to stay on top of their game.

While both teams have had their sights on nationals for a long time now, the men’s team’s qualification came as more of a surprise. After a fifth place finish at the Big Ten Championship, the men used the extra 2K in the Great Lakes Regional 10K race to their advantage to earn a No. 2 finish and a place at nationals.

“We run better as a team in the 10K, even historically we do better at the 10K,” Caleb Rhynard said. Subsequently, the team moved 11 spots in the coaches poll to a No. 17 seat. Rhynard ran in nationals last year as an individual qualifier and this is the team’s first time at nationals since 2012.

“To go this year as a team is pretty exciting, we’re on the up and up which is nice,” he said. “We’re going to try not to get our nerves up to much but obviously we’re excited to go in and see that we can do.”

A goal for both teams is to run well late in the race, and Kroll says it is a proven advantage.

“Coach Drenth always talks about the last 2,000 meters of the race and how that is our go-to,” Kroll said. “So when we get to that portion of the race, the last six or seven minutes, that’s really when the race starts and so that’s when we really try to pick off girls and run down a lot of people. We think that’s the difference maker with our team.”

To an outsider, an effective strategy and efficient training may make the difference in a race, but Drenth says the team’s relationship with one another is the most effective weapon.

“My take away from the season has just been the people. What a great ride, phenomenal people to be around,” Drenth said. “I’ve loved seeing the cultural changes that happened with both groups. So the growth in the people is what I’m going to take away.”

In the end, both teams have come a far way from just last year and have done it together as a family.

Instead of freezing at the Rutgers game this Saturday, the men and women will be running in the snow at Lavern Gibson Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Indiana. The women’s 6K race is at noon and the men’s 10K will be at 1:15 p.m.

Alexa McCarthy is the host of Last Leg for Impact Sports.

DeAnna Sanders is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.

Photo: @MSUTrackFieldXC