By James Rogers
The Michigan State University women’s cross-country team captured the NCAA Division I national title on Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana, but I have to believe the MSU football team’s 42-point drubbing of Rutgers received more coverage over the weekend.
Regardless, I’m here to celebrate the cross-country title and the sensational 2014 season put together by the Spartans. A team from the Mitten taking home a national championship trophy makes me, a Michigan resident, proud.
The distance runners entered Terre Haute on Saturday as the No. 1-ranked team in the country and fresh off a dominating performance at the Great Lakes Regional in Madison, Wisconsin, on November 14. MSU won the region with 28 points. If you’re not familiar with cross-country scoring, 28 points is an incredible showing.
At the regional meet, senior Leah O’Connor and sophomore Rachele Schulist finished first and second overall, respectively, in the 6,000-meter race. This one-two punch was formidable all season, with O’Connor taking home the Big Ten individual title (Schulist was third) and earning Great Lakes Athlete of the Year, per the Big Ten’s official Twitter account:
Head coach Walt Drenth had himself a season to remember, too. Joining Michigan State in June 2006, Drenth is now a four-time Great Lakes Coach of the Year and a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year. On Saturday, Drenth said the women stuck with what they had been doing all year, per The Detroit News:
“What a great group of people. It’s just so much fun to watch. They really did what they’ve done all year. They stayed patient and they ran well late. They stepped up for each other. It was a great team effort.”
The Spartans scored 85 points en route to the national title, defeating second-place Iowa State by 62 points. Scoring below 100 points at a national championship race is nothing to overlook. Georgetown entered the race as the No. 2 team in the country, only to get upended by 104 points to MSU and finish fourth.
Surprising to many, O’Connor wasn’t the first Spartan to cross the line on Saturday—she was third on the team. This just speaks to the MSU depth and attack. O’Connor didn’t have her best race, but she could rely on her teammates to pull through. O’Connor indeed pulled through, too, finishing 17th and claiming All-American honors.
I would have loved to see O’Connor finish top 10 in her final cross-country race as a Spartan, but because she didn’t and MSU won, it proves just how good this team was. O’Connor was coming off a national title in the steeplechase from outdoor track, so expectations were high.
Schulist was the lone Spartan in the top 10, finishing fourth. Junior Lindsay Clark was the No. 2 runner for MSU in 11th place. Prior to the season, how many had Schulist as a top-five finisher? Schulist down the final straightaway, per TrackAndFieldPhoto:
Schulist talked about the unwavering team chemistry—a key ingredient to any national champion-caliber group—per The Detroit News:
“You can’t beat this. These are the best girls in the world. They’re just amazing. I just love our team. We work together and take care of each other and that’s what makes us. There’s so much love. I love it.”
Love. Love for the sport and love for those striding with you through the grind of a complete, no-excuses cross-country season. A season that saw the Spartans finish no worse than first in a meet.
MSU’s seven-runner squad from Saturday’s 6K championship:
- 4. Rachele Schulist (SO) — 19:54.3
- 11. Lindsay Clark (JR) — 20:16.0
- 17. Leah O’Connor (SR) — 20:20.8
- 21. Julia Otwell (SR) — 20:29.5
- 61. Sara Kroll (SR) — 20:56.7
- 69. Alexis Wiersma (SO) — 21:01.0
- 119. Katie Landwehr (JR) — 21:21.8
- Note: Six of the seven went to high school in Michigan.
Four All-Americans and a team that should make the state of Michigan proud. People will question how a team from East Lansing, Michigan, defeated the likes of Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa State.
No altitude, brutal winters and a roster made up almost entirely of homegrown Michigan runners couldn’t produce a remarkable collegiate cross-country team, right?
Well, the Spartans showed off their toughness, remained true to each other, backed up their No. 1 ranking and became one of the best women’s cross-country teams in NCAA history.