When asked about goals, the Iowa State women’s cross-country runners first will discuss what the team hopes to accomplish, then what they hope to achieve as individuals.
The team-first mentality has led to a Big 12 title and an eighth straight trip to the NCAA Cross-Country Championship, which will take place next Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The Cyclones earned an at-large bid to nationals Saturday after finishing third at the NCAA Midwest Regional on Friday in Iowa City.
One of the greatest challenges the team faced this season was patience. After all, Iowa State had Saturday circled on its calendar since it finished 24th at the 2015 national meet.
But the 363-day wait has been whittled down to just seven days now after Friday.
While the team’s performances in meets throughout the season are what helped secure an at-large bid to the 2016 championship meet, Iowa State’s road back to nationals can be largely attributed to what happened behind the scenes.
How they got here
September doesn’t stand in out in terms of team performances at meets, but it may have been the most crucial month of the season for the Cyclones.
The team spent the month focusing on building fitness and staying healthy.
“We’re building a ton of fitness in September, trying to focus on staying healthy, but I can kind of sense as we get further into things and as we start to get going a little bit, we can see the focus start to come into play,” coach Andrea Grove-McDonough said toward the end of September. “Our eyes are firmly on what we want to do in November.”
Sophomore Anne Frisbie spent time overcoming low iron levels and fatigue issues, which kept her from competing until October. Redshirt junior Bethanie Brown was preparing to make her first return to a collegiate cross-country race since the 2014 NCAA Championship meet. And freshman Branna MacDougall was working back up to full speed after a busy summer of competition.
In the process of holding back on the season debuts of all three runners, the team witnessed its ranking in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll slide from No. 17 in the preseason to No. 26 after a 14th-place finish at the Roy Griak Invitational.
Having a lower ranking than what the team thinks it is capable of can be a blessing and a curse. On one side, it alleviates pressure, but on the other side, a lower ranking can also create distractions.
“[Grove-McDonough] likes to talk about the rankings a lot,” redshirt sophomore Evelyne Guay said earlier this season. “Last year, it was her goal to ignore the rankings, but she can never do that. She said that, and then lo and behold, the next week she was talking about them again. But it can work to our advantage being low on paper because we’re underdogs, so people aren’t expecting us to do the great things we would like to achieve.”
As the season has progressed, the pieces of the puzzle have begun to fall into place, and Iowa State has witnessed a quick rise to No. 12 in the most recent rankings.
All signs throughout the season have pointed to a breakthrough. It was just a matter of when it would occur.
When it did happen, it was led by a somewhat unlikely candidate.
Frisbie, who was coming off a 53rd-place performance 15 days earlier at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, used a new strategy to lead the Cyclones to a Big 12 Championship on Oct. 29 in Lubbock, Texas.
While she climbed well throughout the race in Wisconsin, she fell a little too far behind out of the gate. At Big 12s, she worked on getting out a little faster and started in the middle of the pack instead of toward the back.
Frisbie ended up finishing fourth overall at the meet and was followed by senior Perez Rotich in eighth, Brown in ninth, redshirt junior Erin Hooker in 11th and sophomore Kelly Naumann in 24th.
“Coach told me that getting top 10 would be a good goal for me, so that was my goal going into the race,” Frisbie said. But honestly, I thought that was a pretty lofty goal. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to do top 10. Getting top four was a surprise, and it was really exciting.
A new identity
Until this year, Grove-McDonough-led Iowa State teams have had one or two runners who have consistently run at the front of the pack for the Cyclones. In 2013, then-sophomore Crystal Nelson led the team in the final five meets of the season. In 2014, Nelson and Katy Moen were both low sticks for Iowa State. And last year, Rotich and Hooker were in charge of leading.
This year’s team, however, has had a different leader in four of the five meets it’s competed in.
Redshirt freshman Grace Gibbons led the Cyclones in their season-opener at the Hawkeye Early Bird Invitational. Rotich was the team’s top runner at the Roy Griak Invitational. Hooker was the first Cyclone to cross the finish line at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational. And Frisbie became the fourth different leader for Iowa State at the Big 12 Championship.
Even Grove-McDonough doesn’t know who will be the team’s top runner at any given meet or what the team is capable of achieving come Saturday.
“For one of the first times in my career, we’re so good through seven,” Grove-McDonough said. “In the past, I’ve had teams that were really, really good one through five, but six and seven were really a question mark, and if we needed to score them, we were going to be in big trouble. In this case, I don’t feel that way at all. We have a real deep, solid lineup.”