On a blustery Saturday morning in Terre Haute, Ind., the Badgers men and women cross country teams joined the best in the country to compete at the NCAA cross country championship.
The wide-open LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course did not bode well with the driving winds, as the conditions played a factor into the strategies of the races. In the men’s individual and women’s team races, there were definite favorites in Oregon’s Edward Cheserek and the Colorado Buffalo women.
The Badgers entered the race with the men’s squad ranked 13th in the country and the women’s team slotted at 18th, while individual men Morgan McDonald and Malachy Schrobilgen were ranked 5th and 10th, respectively.
The men’s team race had six possible contenders, with Northern Arizona, Colorado, defending champion Syracuse, 2015 runner-up Stanford, Brigham Young, and Arkansas all in the mix. The battle for the women’s individual title was expected to come down to Michigan’s Erin Finn, New Mexico’s Alice Wright and Notre Dame sophomore stud Anna Rohrer.
The women’s 6k race went off first, starting at 10 a.m. CT. The field started to string out early in the competition, with Rohrer taking the charge from the front. Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer, Kansas’ Sharon Lokedi, San Francisco’s Charlotte Taylor, and Wisconsin Invite champion Boise State’s Brenna Peloquin tagged into the lead group along with the race favorites, with that pack separating from the rest of the field about halfway through. Runners began dropping from the lead pack at around 4k, and a big surge from Rohrer left all but Finn and Peloquin in her wake.
Entering the long 400 meter final straightaway, it looked like Rohrer would take the crown. However, Finn, the wily senior who lost both of her shoes in a heartbreaking 19th place finish at last year’s national meet, came on strong late to pass Rohrer and looked to have secured her long-awaited first NCAA title. Yet Schweizer, a virtual unknown before winning the Midwest Regional, shocked everyone watching by passing Finn in the final meters of the race to win her first NCAA title with a time of 19:41. Finn would finish second in 19:44.2 in a brutal end to a sterling collegiate career characterized by silver medal finishes at nationals, with Rohrer taking third in 19:44.6. Overlooked Oregon freshman Katie Rainsberger provided an additional surprise with a 4th place finish, leading the Ducks to an overall team victory.
Oregon’s 125 points beat Michigan by a single point, as Colorado finished third after their best runner, Erin Clark, crossed the line in 133rd. The Badgers outran their expectations, finishing 14th overall after not even being ranked before the regional meet. 2014 Nationals runner-up senior Sarah Disanza came back from an injury-riddled season to lead the Badgers with a 54th overall finish in 20:33, and was backed up by freshman Alicia Monson, senior Michelle Lee, sophomore Shaelyn Sorensen, and sophomore Amy Davis. While the Badgers are graduating three of their top seven, they have some promising talent that could spell a return to the Big Dance.
The women’s race would be a tough act to follow, but the men’s race brought fireworks as well. The men’s individual race featured possibly the most dominant male athlete in NCAA history in Oregon senior Edward Cheserek, who had racked up 14 NCAA titles in his career and was looking to be the first person in NCAA history to win four individual cross country titles. While no one in collegiate distance running had ever presented a real challenge to “The King” since his freshman year, 2015 runner-up Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan, Syracuse junior Justyn Knight, and Northern Arizona’s Futsum Zeinasellassie were expected to battle for second. The team race was anyone’s game, with NAU, seeking its program’s first title in head coach Eric Heins’ final season, entering the race as the top seed.
The men’s race started much more conservatively, with the field almost entirely together through 2k. NAU’s second runner, New Zealander Matt Baxter, was the early leader along with Big Ten runner-up Michigan State’s Sherod Hardt, with Badgers McDonald and Schrobilgen attaching to the lead pack. At the 5k mark, with the pace still slow, Cheserek was seen smiling at other runners in the race, displaying the confidence typical of the man who has dominated competitive fields in the past without breaking a sweat. Tiernan, an Olympian in the 5k who doesn’t specialize in shorter races, made a move to amp up the pace with a lot of the course to cover. The Australian, with Cheserek and Knight in tow, glided away from the rest of the field with Zeinasellassie left alone in 4th. Tiernan began alternating the pace in an attempt to tire out the legs of King Ches and Knight, who both live off of their devastating finishing speed.
In a truly shocking development, Cheserek faltered with about a mile left in the race, with Tiernan and Knight opening up a large gap on the heavy favorite. The Villanova Wildcat’s strategy worked out in the end, as Tiernan held off Knight in the final straightaway to pull off the enormous upset and win the championship in 29:22. Knight’s short distance wheels that made him a legend with his win at the Wisconsin Invite weren’t seen over the final stretch, but he still finished in 29:27. Cheserek continued to fade over the final mile, repeatedly looking over his shoulder yet looking oddly effortless. Zeinasellassie nearly nipped him at the line, but the King hung on for 3rd in 29:48 while the Lumberjack star was a second behind.
Northern Arizona took the team title with 125 points, finishing with four runners in the coveted All-American places. Last year’s controversial decision to redshirt a healthy Zeinassellasie to give them a better chance of winning this year paid off in a big way for NAU. Stanford finished second despite holding out freshman superstar Thomas Ratcliffe, and defending champs Syracuse came in 3rd. The Badger men also ran a great race, finishing 8th with 256 points a year after failing to qualify for the meet. Junior Morgan McDonald took 7th place with a time of 29:59 and should challenge for the national title next year. In the final cross country race of his brilliant Wisconsin career, senior Malachy Schrobilgen hung on for 25th with a time of 30:13. Olin Hacker and Joe Hardy ran well as a tandem, finishing 65th and 66th respectively, and Ben Eidenschink rounded out the scoring for the Badgers. The loss of Schrobilgen will present a serious problem for next year’s squad, but the rest of the top 7 returns along with a talented recruiting class. If redshirt freshman Hacker can continue to improve, the Badgers could challenge for the Top 5.
Rankings courtesy of Flotrack.org