The spotlight on the ISU women’s cross-country team at the NCAA Championship on Saturday won’t shine as bright as it did a year ago, when the team finished second at the meet.
Iowa State earned its bid to nationals after finishing second at the NCAA Midwest Regional on Friday, but unlike last year when the Cyclones entered the meet ranked No. 5, this year’s team will fly into nationals much lower on the radar.
A top-five group led by Perez Rotich, Erin Hooker, Andrea Toppin, Abby Caldwell and Evelyne Guay helped Iowa State punch its seventh ticket to the NCAA Championship in as many years.
Each of those runners, along with Kate DeSimone and Maryn Lowry — who finished as Iowa State’s sixth and seventh runners — have taken on much larger roles than originally expected before the season started in September.
Rotich and Hooker have become the No. 1 and No. 2 runners on the team, roles that belonged last year to Crystal Nelson and Katy Moen, who both finished in the top 10 at the 2014 NCAA Championship.
“I think this team just has a very good energy in that we are in it for the team,” Hooker said. “And last year’s was that reason [too], although there was a little more individual glory just naturally with the more talented girls like [Nelson] and [Moen].
"We weren’t going to hold them back, and Perez and I certainly aren’t held back this year. It’s just different in that we are closer in time and in places to our third, fourth, fifth, sixth girls.”
Toppin, Caldwell and Guay have had to fill in as the team's three, four and five runners this year. Neither Caldwell nor Guay had ever competed in a meet for the Cyclones before this season, and Toppin hadn't ran in a meet since the 2013 NCAA Championship.
The remaining roles have been filled largely by walk-ons and freshmen who had little to no experience competing in collegiate cross-country meets entering the season.
“I think we’re all just really comfortable now,” said ISU women’s cross-country coach Andrea Grove-McDonough. “I think last year we knew how good we were. And this might sound funny, but that was stressful.
"We really were like, ‘God, let’s just not screw it up.’ Whereas this year, we’ve really had to motivate each other and really kind of come together as a squad because we weren’t really going to have any big superstars, at least at first. [Hooker] and [Rotich] are becoming those kind of athletes.”
The Cyclones are currently ranked No. 16 in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll and will enter the NCAA Championship as an underdog. It’s a role Grove-McDonough-led teams have thrived in.
In her first year as coach in 2013, the ISU women’s cross-country team was ranked No. 26 in the preseason poll and finished 13th at nationals. Last year, the Cyclones entered the season ranked No. 9 and finished runner-up at nationals.
This year, the coaches poll opted not to overlook Iowa State in the preseason rankings, placing the team No. 1. After having to redshirt their best runner from a season ago and waiting to decide whether to redshirt 2013 All-American Bethanie Brown, the Cyclones have witnessed a steady decline in the rankings throughout the season.
But Grove-McDonough believes the injuries and setbacks have made this team tighter than it’s ever been.
“The blessing in all of these unfortunate circumstances and redshirting all these girls for better or for worse, has been that it’s forced the team to come together,” Grove-McDonough said. “And it’s just a pretty neat thing to see. They’re running more for each other, more for Iowa State than for anything individual.”
Grove-McDonough did not rule out the possibility of Brown making her season debut in Louisville.
“[Brown’s] not hurt at this point, Grove-McDonough said. “We could pull a move like we did last year; we could throw Bethanie into the fire [at the NCAA Championship]. And again, I have no doubt she would help us."