Injuries and health issues often leave teams with two options: Give up hope on the season and accept defeat, or move on and keep fighting.
The ISU women’s cross-country team was put in that exact situation this season, but it decided to take a more complicated approach.
The Cyclones didn’t follow any script. They developed their own story and their own characters. All that’s left now is the ending — the NCAA Championship in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday.
ISU women’s cross-country coach Andrea Grove-McDonough believes the team's series of bad luck — the inability to race two of its best runners in any meet this season and another top runner appearing in only one meet — could be payback for everything going right for the team last year, when it finished second at the NCAA Championship.
But then how does that explain everything that has gone right for the team throughout this season?
Unlikely vocal leader
Perez Rotich, who may have been the team’s quietest runner a season ago, has become a strong vocal leader for the Cyclones this year and has been the team’s top runner in all four meets in which she’s competed.
Grove-McDonough said Rotich would have been one of the last on her list to be a leader this year because she had never been very vocal.
“Rotich has become an incredibly vocal leader [this year], in particular at practice and in the middle of the race,” Grove-McDonough said. “A coach came up to me from an opposing team at the Big 12s and said, ‘Hey, you know, your girl that won, I saw her talking to her teammate and encouraging her in the race.’ And that’s what she’s been doing a lot of.”
Rotich finished fourth at the Greater Louisville Classic, 23rd at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational, first at the Big 12 Championship and 12th at the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Erin Hooker struggled with confidence last year, finishing well in meets with small fields — ninth at the Big 12 Championship and 14th at the NCAA Midwest Regional — but struggling on the big stage with a 180th–place finish at the NCAA Championship.
This year, Hooker's boost in confidence has been noticeable.
She improved 79 spots in the Wisconsin adidas Invitational compared to last year and has been Iowa State’s No. 2 runner in three of the past four meets.
“This year, I am much more confident, and I’m not intimidated by the competition or by workouts or races,” Hooker said. “And I think that just comes with more experience.”
Back from the dead
Andrea Toppin was robbed of her entire cross-country season last year after starting the season with a stress fracture in her tibia. She said her passion for the sport kept her motivated.
“Not everyone gets to be a collegiate, Division I athlete, and I just want to make the most out of this experience,” Toppin said. “Injuries put a damper on things, but, at the end of the day, I’m representing Iowa State, and I just want to do the best I can for this university. So that’s what I think about when I’m injured, when I’m cross-training.”
After not competing in a cross-country meet since the 2013 NCAA Cross-Country Championship, Toppin said she just hoped she’d make the travel squad for the team this year. Her role would become more important, however.
Toppin finished as Iowa State’s sixth runner at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational, fifth runner at the Big 12 Championship and third runner at the NCAA Midwest Regional, where she finished 18th overall.
“Coach said I was resurrected from the dead,” Toppin said. “I hadn’t raced in a cross-country meet previous to this season since 2013. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to race cross-country again.”
Debut season results in success for Abby Caldwell
Caldwell redshirted her freshman cross-country season and didn’t make her ISU cross-country debut until Sept. 11 at the Oz Memorial, where she finished third overall in the race.
“I trained all summer and really wanted to contribute this year,” Caldwell said. “With a series of events, I am contributing and just trying to do whatever I can to help the team.”
Caldwell’s most recent performances include a 15th-place finish at the Big 12 Championship and 19th-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional.
More than a build-up for track season
Like Caldwell, Evelyne Guay redshirted her freshman cross-country season last year. She made her ISU cross-country debut Sept. 4 at the Hawkeye Early Bird Invitational, where she finished first overall in the race.
Guay said she was just going to use this cross-country season as a base for the indoor track season this winter.
Instead, she has been a key contributor for this year’s team, scoring for the Cyclones in both the Big 12 Championship and NCAA Midwest Regional.
“We had so many talented girls on [the cross-country] team, and I thought I’d be maybe top 10 at the best,” Guay said. “We had a lot of girls injured, and it kind of forced me to step up and take a role I didn’t think I would have.”
Ready for NCAAs
Rotich, Hooker, Toppin, Caldwell and Guay were the five runners who scored for the Cyclones at the NCAA Midwest Regional, helping the Cyclones earn their seventh straight appearance to the NCAA Championship.
They haven’t tried to replace the runners Iowa State lost early in the season. They’ve instead created their own stories, which combined have created a determined team that believes in itself and believes the best is still yet to come.
When the ISU runners take the course Saturday, they’ll begin with a pre-race jam session, rocking out to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Miley Cyrus’ “Do My Thang.” But once the gun sounds, it will be time for the Cyclones to do their thing and write the final chapter of their season.
“We have something special, and we’re going to show it on Saturday,” Toppin said. "A lot of people have us as underdogs. We’re not the team we were last year, but we’re tough. We grind it out, we always have each other’s backs. We like going in as the underdogs.
"We thrive on that.”