The Iowa State women’s cross-country team has a chance to qualify for its eighth straight NCAA Championship on Friday, but getting there is just the beginning.
With a Big 12 Championship, several wins against top-ranked opponents and a group of runners who seem to improve after each competition, the team is more focused on what will happen at nationals than how to get there.
"Regionals is obviously very important, but we actually had a pretty tough workout [last] Friday, so coach [Andrea Grove-McDonough] is telling us we might not feel super fresh for Friday's race," sophomore Anne Frisbie said. "But she said the bigger picture is nationals. That's the race she cares the most about."
The Cyclones have been waiting to return to the biggest stage in women’s collegiate cross-country ever since the end of last season, and Grove-McDonough’s season-long quest to prove that the team is back in a big way after last season’s disappointing finish is going according to plan.
The Cyclones finished in the top 10 in one of the biggest non-postseason meets, the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, regained their position atop the Big 12 and have stayed mostly healthy and injury-free throughout the season.
The wait for nationals is nearly over, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Iowa State needs to finish inside the top two at the NCAA Midwest Regional on Friday to earn an automatic invitation. If it doesn’t, it will have to rely on an at-large bid to get in.
“I don’t want to get too tricky," Grove-McDonough said. "We want to go out and run solid and make sure we safely advance, but we are also one of the lucky teams that if we were to somehow not finish inside the top two automatic qualifying spots, we have enough head-to-head wins, enough accumulated points in the system that we’re going to be fine and we’ll get an at-large bid."
The focus for Grove-McDonough’s squad is to get in there, take care of business and prepare for Terre Haute, Indiana, the site of the National Championship.
“[I’m] not feeling a whole lot of pressure, other than, you know, there’s always that suppose you never know," Grove-McDonough said.
The Cyclones were ranked No. 2 in the most recent U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Midwest regional rankings that were released on Oct. 31. But the team was No. 12 in the Nov. 1 national poll, which is the highest ranking among Midwest regional teams.
Iowa State’s biggest threat at the meet appears to be No. 17 Oklahoma State, which finished seventh at last year’s NCAA Championship and has a similar team this year.
“You have to assume eventually [Oklahoma State is] going to get it together,” Grove-McDonough said before the Big 12 meet two weeks ago.
The Cyclones will also run against Minnesota, which is ranked No. 26 in the national coaches poll.
Grove-McDonough said early in the week that she has been considering not running one of her top five runners Friday so everyone isn’t on short rest if the team qualifies for nationals.
“If we sit one of those girls, we also would like to not go to the well, so to speak, and run ourselves ragged,” Grove-McDonough said. “You know, you have six days recovery for the national meet.”