The Iowa State women's cross-country team's breakthrough was only a matter of when, not if.
For the fourth time this season, the Cyclones used a new lineup, a new leader and a new storyline en route to their fifth Big 12 Championship in six years.
Redshirt freshman Grace Gibbons’ second-place performance at the Hawkeye Invitational led the team in its season opener. Senior Perez Rotich was Iowa State’s low scorer at the Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 24. And redshirt junior Erin Hooker carried the team at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 14 with a 14th-place finish.
Saturday, it was sophomore Anne Frisbie’s turn to lead the charge for the Cyclones at the Big 12 Championship in Lubbock, Texas.
A fourth-place finish from Frisbie, combined with a complete team effort in which four Iowa State runners earned All-Big 12 honors, proved to be another step in Iowa State coach Andrea Grove-McDonough’s mission to prove that the team’s 24th-place finish at last season’s NCAA Championship was just a bump in the road.
The Big 12 title was Grove-McDonough’s third in four years at Iowa State, but Saturday’s meant a little more to her than the others.
“When I first got here, many of those athletes were left over from the former coach [Corey Ihmels], the athletes he had recruited,” she said. “So that was challenging to come in, and you kind of feel maybe a little bit less ownership of it than you would have, say, four years down the road.
"Coming off last year and to lose the trophy after that long run we had and to be beaten really soundly last year was just tough to swallow. So to come back and say, ‘Hey, we’re back.’ Iowa State maybe was down, but not out.”
The Iowa State runners are just beginning to peak at the right time.
Grove-McDonough said since the beginning of the season that Frisbie would be one of the team’s top five runners and would be a “huge part of our success in November.”
That’s a lot of pressure for a second-year runner who had only competed in three collegiate cross-country meets entering this season, but Frisbie proved Saturday that the added expectations don’t faze her.
Her fourth-place finish was a 32-spot improvement from last year’s Big 12 meet.
“I feel like I do well with pressure,” Frisbie said earlier this season. “Instead of letting it hurt me, it makes me more motivated.”
Grove-McDonough said in many ways, Frisbie’s performance was the highlight of the day for the Cyclones, and it proved that the team has at least four runners who can lead the team on any given day.
“We had been seeing that in [Frisbie] from the spring,” Grove-McDonough said. “And so we knew that, and she had a terrific summer, really, really put the miles in and the work in. She came in early season and was really, really fit.
"[She] had a little setback, got a little sick, had some iron issues and fatigue issues, so I felt like she responded so well and so maturely to that. We just backed her off and let her get her legs back under her and really felt like we saved the season for her.”
In addition to Frisbie finishing fourth, senior Perez Rotich placed eighth, redshirt junior Bethanie Brown placed ninth and redshirt junior Erin Hooker finished 11th.
“I know that Erin Hooker didn’t have a day that was her best, but she showed us her character and sort of matured,” Grove-McDonough said. “She grinded the whole race, knew she still needed to score, knew we were having a good team race. … And Perez, if she keeps doing better, we all know what [she] is capable of.”
The list goes on. Sophomore Kelly Naumann was the fifth scorer for Iowa State, finishing 24th overall, and Brown quickly rebounded from an 87th-place season debut at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.
But Grove-McDonough still thinks her team has more to give.
Now that the Cyclones have reclaimed the top position in the Big 12, all that’s left is to prove how good they are on a national scale.
“In the past, I’ve wanted to kind of speculate or have a feel for [our potential at nationals], but I really don’t know,” Grove-McDonough said. “And I don’t want to try to figure it out because I think all that will do is limit them. I want to go out there and for us to say, ‘Hey, we have so much upside, who know’s what’s possible on the right day?’"