The ISU women’s cross-country team’s fall from the top ranking in the country entering the season wasn't ideal, but it has helped it uncover its identity.
Iowa State runs deep in talent, but it’s been the team’s character that has impressed ISU women’s cross-country coach Andrea Grove-McDonough the most this season.
Two and a half months ago, the Cyclones were in the discussion to win a national championship. Injuries and setbacks have since diminished that hope, but Iowa State has continued to refuse to give up on this season.
“It’s unfortunate on one hand that we were a team that thought [it] had a right to talk about winning a national title and then to know we’re not in that conversation now,” Grove-McDonough said. “But ultimately, what I’m very proud of now is I think the culture of this program has been on display. I think the never-say-die kind of attitude has been evident.”
Of the 10 runners at last year's Big 12s, the Cyclones had only two at the Big 12 meet this year, but the team was still able to finish second behind No. 13 Oklahoma State.
“In the end, we’re disappointed not to win the Big 12 title,” Grove-McDonough said. “Ultimately, that’s just been the kind of year we’ve had. Maybe it’s payback for last year for having things really go our way in the luck department."
The Cyclones will have an opportunity at the NCAA Midwest Regional on Friday in Lawrence, Kan., to get revenge against Oklahoma State and No. 21 Minnesota, which defeated Iowa State in two meets earlier in the season.
"Last year's team was very strong because we had a lot of top talent, obviously second in the nation, [a] really successful team," said redshirt sophomore Erin Hooker. "But with this team, we're forced to rely on one another, we're forced to push each other, and we're forced to make more sacrifices for the team."
Grove-McDonough has reached deep into her roster this season because of the injuries, and the starting lineups in meets have largely been made up of walk-ons with little experience.
Many of the lesser-known cross-country runners have filled large gaps for the Cyclones this year.
Evelyne Guay was the most recent ISU runner to provide an unexpected performance for Iowa State at the Big 12 meet, where she finished 16th.
“It didn’t change the result, but it’s still been nice to see a girl like [Guay], who’s really not someone we have been looking to, to make a difference this year, step up in a big way with her 16th place [finish],” Grove-McDonough said.
Grove-McDonough will have to call on some of her more unexperienced runners again Friday to help the Cyclones earn potentially a sixth-straight NCAA Midwest Regional title and a bid to the NCAA Championship in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 21.
Grove-McDonough will also rely on Hooker and Perez Rotich, who has been Iowa State's top runner in three straight meets, to continue their strong 2015 campaigns.
"I just feel like these women have so much heart and so much character and really believe in themselves," Grove-McDonough said. "We're in a position to still do very well at NCAAs. Even with all of the built-in excuses, we never thought that we could use it as an excuse. We're still expected — because we're Iowa State — to have an impact at the NCAAs in some way."
The Cyclones will have to finish inside the top two at the regional meet to automatically qualify for NCAAs.
Grove-McDonough said freshman Becky Straw, who finished 12th overall at the Greater Louisville Classic on Oct. 3, will not run at the NCAA Midwest Regional after getting injured at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational on Oct. 16 and missing the Big 12 Championship.
She does expect Straw to be back for NCAAs.
Grove-McDonough is still waiting to announce whether 2013 All-American Bethanie Brown, who hasn’t raced this year, will compete at the NCAA Championship. Grove-McDonough did say Brown is healthy, however.
With less than a week off between the regional meet and NCAAs, the Cyclones won't burn themselves out and push hard at the beginning of the race like they did at Big 12s.
"We're not just walking into regionals just to get it done, because we still have to get top two to automatically qualify," Hooker said. "We're still taking regionals very seriously, and we're going to try our best. It's going to be more strategy and less just pushing ourselves until we fall down."