While their quest to qualify for the NCAAs as a team fell short Saturday, women’s cross country will send two Maroons to toe the line at Nationals next weekend.
Placing sixth out of 43 squads at the Midwest Regional, the Maroons finished only one spot shy of an NCAA berth. UW-Oshkosh, which is ranked sixth nationally, edged the Maroons 146 to 158 to take fifth place and the last NCAA bid in the region. However, with their respective 13th and 16th place finishes, fourth-year Rachel Venezia and second-year Liz Lawton nabbed at-large individual selections to next Saturday’s Championship in Hanover, Indiana.
“I was pleased with the way our women ran this weekend,” head coach Chris Hall said. “To be honest with you, I think everybody was a bit disappointed once we found out what our point totals were, but not with our performance. The bottom line is, the other teams just ran very very well. We were disappointed that we didn’t qualify, but, in all honesty, an hour later I think everybody felt really good about how hard they ran and their performance.”
Chicago had been expecting the sheer competitiveness of the Midwest region to pose an obstacle to their NCAA hopes. Of the five squads to top the Maroons Saturday, all but thirty-second ranked Wheaton were in the top ten nationally, and first place went to fifth-ranked UW-Eau Claire.
While the NCAA selection committee invites between two and five teams from each region to Nationals, the Midwest’s strength made it likely from the outset that the top five teams Saturday would travel to Hanover. The twelve point gap for fifth between the Titans and Chicago meant that the Maroons stood only a few improved performances away from an at-large team selection.
“We were unfortunately in the only region in the country that could hold us out of nationals,” Hall said. “If you’d had told me that we could score 158 points and that wouldn’t get us into the NCAA, I’d have thought you were crazy.”
“You can always say ‘I could’ve’ or ‘I should’ve’ after a race,” Lawton added, “but when it comes down to it, we ran as hard as we could as a team, and Oshkosh beat us on Saturday”
The Maroons’ unsuccessful effort included breakout performances from several athletes determined to net a NCAA bid. Qualifying individually for nationals with a time of 22:27, Venezia ran her fastest six-kilometer time of the year, while Lawton followed close behind in 22:34.
In what teammates called the best outing of her career, second-year Molly Peverada took 29th overall, earning a spot on the All-Region team alongside Lawton and Venezia. The third-place team finish tied her best result of the year.
Rounding out Chicago’s regional contingent were first-years Ali Klooster in 47th, Rachel Ohman in 53rd, and Jane Simpson in 82nd. Fourth-year Julia Moriarty took 87th in her final collegiate cross country race.
When the points were tallied and it became clear Chicago would miss out on NCAAs as a unit, Lawton and Venezia had to face the mixed emotion of likely qualifying to compete without their teammates.
“I really wanted our team to make it to Nationals, so I can’t say I was pleased with the meet results,” Venezia said.
However, for a close pair of workout partners who have made qualifying for Nationals their long term goal, there was no denying the excitement of making the cut together.
“Rachel and I were just jumping around, kind of crying and screaming to ourselves,” Lawton said.
After a summer and fall of training alongside each other, Venezia and Lawton have even adopted the habit of wearing homemade bracelets that they pledged not to take off until they qualified.
“Going together gives them a great comfort level,” said Hall. “They’re not out on an island all by themselves.”
The Maroons had to wait until Sunday to hear official word on Venezia and Lawton’s fates. The top seven runners from teams not already heading to NCAAs gain at-large bids. After Saturday, Venezia was virtually sure to receive an invite, while Lawton teetered on the bubble, depending if four or five Midwest teams were selected.
“We were pretty confident right away,” Hall said of the duo’s chances.
Saturday’s championship will mark Lawton’s first trip to the National stage. Venezia, on the other hand, is a veteran of the spotlight, having competed with the entire team as a freshman, and also appearing twice to compete in steeplechase at outdoor track and field NCAAs.