A Monumental Season for MSU Cross Country

Their season started in Eugene, Oregon, battling the Oregon Ducks in 90-degree heat and ended in Terre Haute, Indiana dominating a field of the country’s best runners. The Michigan State women’s cross country team ended a perfect, undefeated season as NCAA Cross Country Champions for the first time in program history.

The Spartans’ road to the championship has been impressive to say the least, while exhibiting nothing but perfect performances the whole season. As USTFCCA pointed out, the women won all six (and now seven) races, with their top squad dominating the runner-up team at each race by at least half the points.

What is the method to these low scores? Having serious depth in the roster.

Leah O’Connor and Rachele Schulist have proved to be a strong duo in the front pack. Schulist has placed in the top five of every race this season, and O’Connor developed over the season to earn both the Big Ten Championship and Great Lakes Regional title. The two ran in together at the conference and regional meets, but nationals proved a different situation.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“Before the girls even knew what the outcome was, they were in tears, because they knew they had run the best and had ran for each other”[/su_pullquote]

Schulist ran in at fourth place and O’Connor placed at a season low 17th, with Lindsay Clark moving in as the Spartans’ second scorer in 11th place. For most teams, losing a runner in the top 10 would have proved devastating, but not for MSU. The team is not top-heavy, their success and low scores can be attested to their ability to step in and run their best when someone else cannot.

“Something we’ve talked to them about is how our team can interchange,” assistant coach Lisa Senakiewich said. “And when you are the No. 1 team in the nation… you better have women that can interchange — because not everyone is going to be on their A-game and people are going to have to step-up.”

According to Senakiewich, O’Connor not feeling her best, but was able to find Clark and Julia Otwell so they could run competitively together.  She talked about O’Connor’s ability to run to a top-20 finish, even when she was not feeling her best.

“She finished 49th last year and she’s now an All-American cross country runner and that’s a huge accomplishment. I’m extremely proud of her and how the women managed to pick each other up, literally,” Senakiewich said.

Throughout the whole season, Senakiewich and head coach Walt Drenth have talked about the runners’ ability to compete for one another.

Senakiewich talked about Katie Landwehr, who was the team’s seventh runner throughout the whole race, but still ran with as much dedication as if she was first.

“She could have just said ‘what’s the point?’,” Senakiewich said. “But when I saw her in between 4k and 5k she was just rolling by people, passing them and fighting.”

Another triumphant moment happened on the turn to the last 500 meters of the race, when Allie Wiersma slipped and fell. But without a moment’s hesitation Wiersma got back up and found Sara Kroll.

“When you fall at that point in the race and lose that momentum, it is difficult to get back up,” Senakiewich said. “But she finished hard. If she was thinking selfishly, she wouldn’t have just gotten right back and finished as strongly as she did.”

Their national championship is by no means a win for a single athlete, but truly a team win from their No. 1 to their No. 7 runners. With this type of team structure, there is no way for the athletes to be anything less than, well, a team. A team that runs for each other and looks out for each other on the race course.

“Before the girls even knew what the outcome was, they were in tears, because they knew they had run the best and had ran for each other,” Senakiewich said. “They were just so happy.”

The title is also an accomplishment for all of MSU athletics, and is the second NCAA title for a women’s team in school history (MSU softball won AIAW national title in 1976).

“I hope for the other women’s sports, they look at this and know that this is something we can do here. That we have the support and the resources and it’s something that can be accomplished again.”

This has been a long-time goal, five years to be precise, for this senior class. This win is by no means a fluke, the Spartans did not gain the title as underdogs because the other teams in the race knew what they were up against, and MSU knew their capabilities.

This title is a testament to what hard work, dedication to one another, and yes, definitely some speed, can do for a team.

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