Understanding the NCAA cross-country qualifying system is as simple as counting to two and as difficult as figuring out which friends not to invite to a birthday party based on a limited number of invitations.
In order to earn an automatic bid to nationals, teams must finish inside the top two at one of the nine regional cross-country meets that will take place Friday.
If a team does not earn one of the 18 automatic bids, it can still earn one of the 13 at-large bids. But instead of deciding who to invite based on who will bring the most presents, the selection committee chooses teams based on their performances throughout the season against the 18 automatic bids.
The selection committee begins the at-large process by analyzing the total wins of the third- and fourth-place finishers in each region. When a team is selected from a region as an at-large team, the committee moves the next team in that region into consideration.
So a team that finished fourth in its region meet can still earn an at-large bid if it has a high number of head-to-head wins against the 18 automatic bids in meets throughout the season. The twist is that the team that finished third in that region would automatically get invited as well through what the NCAA calls the "push process."
At all times throughout the selection process, the committee reviews no fewer than two teams from each region — with a total of 18 teams being reviewed for an at-large bid until 13 are selected — in order to identify any "push" situations.
Once teams get selected, other teams that haven't been selected can add those teams to their win totals if they finished higher than them in a meet since the Sept. 9-11 weekend.
"I've been one of those people who has advocated for some change, particularly qualifying for the regional meet," said Iowa State cross-country coach Grove-McDonough. "I just think it would make sense, it's the NCAA first round, I think you should have to qualify. And I think it's a nice stepping stone for teams that are a ways off from qualifying for the NCAAs.
"But at least then they get to say, 'Hey, maybe we didn't make it, maybe we're not good enough to make it but now we are,' and that's a step, rather than we're there and we all show up."
The current system allows teams to schedule meets that include more top-ranked competitors in an effort to catch some of those top teams on off days or early in the season when they may choose not to race some of their best runners.
"People get used to the system, the way it is and learn how to manage it effectively, learn how to take advantage of its maybe perceived weaknesses or loopholes or just play the system," Grove-McDonough said. "Go to bunch of big meets, chase some points and try to get into the NCAA meet [through] the backdoor."
Despite the team still needing to qualify, the No. 12-ranked Iowa State women's cross-country team remains focused on the NCAA Cross-Country Championship on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana.
"Regionals is obviously very important, but we actually had a pretty tough workout on Friday, so coach is telling us we might not feel super fresh for Friday's race," said sophomore Anne Frisbie, who is coming off a fourth-place finish at the Big 12 Championship. "But she said the bigger picture is nationals. That's the race she cares the most about."
Grove-McDonough said she is considering sitting one of her top five runners for Friday's Midwest Regional in Iowa City, but no decision has been finalized. The goal for the team is to finish inside the top two and earn an automatic bid, but Grove-McDonough is confident that even if the team doesn't, it will still have enough wins to earn an at-large bid.
"If we sit one of those girls, with the full focus being on the NCAA meet, I think we're in good shape," Grove-McDonough said.