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Fall Sports Preview – Cross Country: Wildcats looking for leap after difficult year

Fall Sports Preview – Cross Country: Wildcats looking for leap after difficult year
(Source: Northwestern Athletics)

In the spring’s outdoor track and field season, none of Northwestern’s runners earned a berth in the NCAA West Regional Championships, which first-year coach ‘A Havahla Haynes set as her team’s goal.

But although the Wildcats did not meet the goal that Haynes set for them and are set to lose a lot of runners to graduation, there were signs that the team could be on the rise entering this fall’s cross country season.

The biggest loss from last season’s team is now-graduated Elena Barham, who notched NU’s best 5,000- and 6,000-meter times last fall and was the team’s best 10,000-meter runner during the outdoor track season. With Barham and seven other seniors leaving from last season’s squad, younger runners like juniors Brooke Pigneri and Sara Coffey, who both showed flashes last year, will be counted on to step forward.

The Cats will also hope to get a boost from a pair of senior runners who struggled with injury last fall, Jena Pianin and Andrea Ostenso. The duo, who raced to top-16 finishes in the NCAA Midwest Regional in the fall of 2014, both missed large swaths of time last season and will be looking to reestablish themselves as top runners in their final year at NU.

The incoming freshman class boasts four new runners, most notably Aubrey Roberts, last year’s Wisconsin Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. The Eau Claire native won a Division 1 individual state championship last year and held up well in high-profile regional and national meets during her last year in high school.

Although a lot of senior contributors are leaving, there appear to be a lot of avenues for internal improvement for the Cats. So while her team fell short at the end of the outdoor track season, Haynes said she is hopeful for glory come the fall.

To qualify runner for outdoor track NCAA Regionals, Northwestern has work to do

To qualify runner for outdoor track NCAA Regionals, Northwestern has work to do
(Source: Northwestern Athletics)

Northwestern’s cross country team is now roughly a month away from the end of its second outdoor track season since gaining NCAA sponsorship for track — a move that opened up huge new opportunities for the team. The track seasons in the winter and spring were once merely a chance for the Wildcats to stay sharp in the offseason, but NCAA sponsorship allowed the team to travel to run in high-profile meets and turned track into a main event after fall’s cross country season ended.

The sponsorship also allowed NU runners to qualify for the NCAA Championships at the end of the season. Last year, then-sophomore Andrea Ostenso qualified to run the 10,000m in the NCAA West Preliminary Championships after achieving a season-best of 34 minutes and 46 seconds during the outdoor season.

But this season, the now-junior Ostenso and fellow junior Jena Pianin, NU’s top two runners from last year, have battled injuries, jeopardizing the chances of sending a runner to the NCAA Regionals in coach ‘A Havahla Haynes’ first season at the helm of the team. And with the outdoor track schedule nearing its end, the Cats have a lot of work to do if they want to change that.

NU’s best hope for a regional qualifier is senior Elena Barham, who currently owns the 59th-best season-best in the 10,000m in the West region at 35 minutes and 52 seconds. While only the runners with the top 48 times in each event from a region receive an initial invitation to the NCAA Regionals, runners who qualify in multiple events often choose to focus on one event, opening spots for other runners. For example, Ostenso received her invitation last year after posting the 52nd-best 10,000m time in the West region.

But even with the potential of moving forward as runners turn down invitations, Barham might still be too far back to qualify. Last year’s final qualifier for the West Regional’s 10,000m race was Colorado State’s Rachael Rudel, who owned the 55th-best time in the region.

And historically, Barham’s time in the 10,000m would not put her near qualification for the NCAA Regionals. Her current time would have been the 87th-best in the West last year and the 88th-best in 2014. As the season comes to a close, it is likely that Barham’s current season-best time will fall back in the pack.

Ostenso is a dark horse to make a run for NCAA Regionals qualification, as she nearly broke 17 minutes in a 5,000m race this weekend and has personal-bests in both the 5,000m and 10,000m that would have given her a good chance to qualify this season. But after missing the entirety of fall’s cross country season with injury and with not much time left to get back to the heights of last year, the task might be too much to ask of her.

It seems that if Barham, Ostenso, or any other NU runner wants to make the NCAA West Regionals, they will need to improve their times before the end of the season. But with only two meets left on the schedule, it might be too late to stretch the Cats’ regional-qualifier streak to two years.