The days of easily walking in and out of the Big 12 Women’s Cross-Country Championship with the trophy are over.

Before last season, the Cyclones rattled off four consecutive conference titles, but the competition now is tougher than it’s ever been during coach Andrea Grove-McDonough’s four years at the helm.

Baylor is the highest ranked team entering the meet at No. 12, followed by Iowa State at No. 15 and Oklahoma State at No. 18.

Keys to returning the trophy to Ames

Baylor had four runners finish 31st or better two weeks ago at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational and two in the top 15, while Iowa State had just one runner place in the top 50 — redshirt junior Erin Hooker, who finished 14th.

Grove-McDonough said the key is to try to hang with Baylor one through three and then see if the team can get a fourth runner to finish near Baylor’s fourth.

The Cyclones appear to have an edge at the fifth spot. Baylor’s fifth runner finished 142nd in Wisconsin, while Iowa State’s fifth finished 87th.

But Iowa State’s challenge doesn’t end with Baylor.

Oklahoma State’s seventh-place performance at last season’s NCAA Championship appears to be largely forgotten about as the team has since slipped behind Baylor and Iowa State in the rankings.

Grove-McDonough said Oklahoma State is basically the exact same team it was a year ago and will race NCAA indoor track and field champion Kaela Edwards for the first time this season.

“Oklahoma State is a much better team than they’re being ranked right now,” Grove-McDonough said. “… [Edwards is] going to come in right away and be their best runner. You have to assume eventually [Oklahoma State is] going to get it together. I hope it’s not this weekend, but if it is, they can run with anyone in the country because they have a number of All-Americans on their team. More than any of us combined, I would guess.”

Grove-McDonough also isn’t overlooking West Virginia and Texas, which finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the Penn State Open on Oct. 14.

“I think that West Virginia and Texas are being overlooked,” she said. “I think [Texas is] a good team, and I voted them in the national poll as a voter, and West Virginia as well. Those are solid teams, so I think the Big 12 just keeps getting better and better every year that I’ve been here.”

Iowa State veterans continue to lead

Hooker and senior Perez Rotich have been the leaders of the Cyclones for the past two seasons, finishing as the team’s top two runners in the final four meets in 2015 and the past two meets this season.

They have competed in a combined 29 collegiate cross-country meets. The next three runners on the team, sophomore Anne Frisbie, redshirt junior Bethanie Brown and freshman Branna MacDougall, have competed in a combined 12 collegiate cross-country meets.

Not only have Hooker and Rotich been the leaders on the team, but they also seem to always find a way to get toward the front of the pack in Big 12 meets. They have four top-10 finishes between them at Big 12 Championships, and they both finished in the top two at last year’s meet, with Rotich taking first and Hooker second.

“Second would be great again, but it really depends on the day," Hooker said. "My goal is definitely to be in the top 10, but I would say my big goal is to be in the top five. The competition is really tough this year, and if we could get five girls close to the top 10, that would be great.”

Hooker said she has a lot of fun competing in smaller fields and is excited to have a meet now after performing well at the Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 24 and the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational where she can move around easier in the race.

“You don’t have to jump over people if they fall, you have plenty room; however, it’s going to be faster and everyone’s competing for a conference title, which is a championship race just like NCAAs,” she said.

Iowa State runner to watch

For the first time this season, Iowa State will race freshman Branna MacDougall, who as a prep runner was named to the Canadian national team and set a Canadian Junior National record in a 10th-place finish in the 5,000-meter run at the World U-20 World Championships in July.

Grove-McDonough said MacDougall just started running on land again on Oct. 21 after taking a few weeks off due to a minor setback. They initially thought MacDougall had a stress reaction, but the MRI was negative.

“It’s exciting, but I don’t expect [MacDougall] to absolutely nail it,” Grove-McDonough said. “It’s tough to have those kind of expectations of someone no matter how good they are. No doubt she makes a difference for us and will help us out front. It’s just another body in the mix there with Erin [Hooker] and Perez [Rotich].”

Iowa State will compete in the Big 12 Championship at 10 a.m. Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, and the weather.com forecast as of Thursday afternoon calls for a high of 85 degrees.

“I don’t know if I’d say that we have that [swag] all the way back like we did maybe in 2014, but I certainly feel it coming,” Grove-McDonough said. “I really like the way this season is building, and I don’t feel like anybody is anxious. I think maybe last year we were a little anxious, maybe pressing too hard at this time of year.

"This year, it just seems to be coming around organically, things are just coming together, and we’ve been keeping a pretty low profile. Just watch the pieces come together, and I think there’s a real quiet confidence with this group.”

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