One of the greatest mysteries in women’s cross-country this year has been how Iowa State will stack up against the elite teams in the nation.
Friday’s Wisconsin adidas Invitational should provide an answer. The meet will feature 20 of the top 25 teams in the country, including No. 1 New Mexico.
The Cyclones entered the season as one of the favorites to win this year’s NCAA Cross Country Championship in Louisville, Ky.
But after losing Crystal Nelson, its top runner from a season ago, and trying to work All-American Bethanie Brown back to health, the team has found itself on a downward slope in the rankings, dropping to No. 8 in the most recent U.S. Track and Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association poll.
“We’re not feeling the pressure,” said redshirt sophomore Erin Hooker. “[We’re] just keeping the focus at practice and not taking time outside of practice to get caught up in [the rankings].”
Just like at practice, the team kept its focus on the meet at the Greater Louisville Classic in Louisville two weekends ago.
The loss of Nelson and the uncertainty surrounding Brown left ISU coach Andrea Grove-McDonough relying on her younger, more inexperienced runners to step into a bigger role. As a result, the team’s lineup for the Louisville Classic had an unfamiliar appearance.
Out of the top five runners to finish for Iowa State, no more than two had ever competed together in the same meet.
But it didn’t take long for the group — one freshman, a redshirt freshman, a redshirt sophomore and two juniors — to build chemistry on the course.
The time differential between junior Perez Rotich, the first-place finisher for Iowa State, and junior Maryn Lowry, the fifth-place finisher, was 25.84 seconds, which is the second lowest differential between its first and fifth runners for the team this season.
The contributions led to a second-place performance for Iowa State at the meet.
“As a team, we did really well,” said redshirt freshman Abby Caldwell, who finished 20th overall at the meet. “I was really proud of our team, and we’re still growing and continuing to get better.”
Caldwell, who said she didn’t initially expect to have this big of a role this season on the team, credited Grove-McDonough with relieving the pressure on the young runners.
“I think coach does a really good job with our team and me,” Caldwell said. “She has a cool way of going about the pressure, and she gets us ready [to compete].”
While the Louisville Classic two weekends ago didn’t answer Grove-McDonough’s question of how well the team can compete against the best schools in the country, it provided reassurance that a strong finish to this season is still within reach.
Grove-McDonough said a group similar to the one that competed in Louisville will take the course Friday in Madison, Wis.
The Cyclones will also use a similar strategy Friday that spurred much of their success last season when competing in meets with a deep field of runners: Running together in a pack in an attempt to build off one another during the race.
“Having a good performance at Wisconsin will translate to these races coming up, just bring that energy moving forward, so it’d be really great if all of the girls can have a good race,” Hooker said. “This field is bigger and a lot more competitive [than Louisville].”