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Ericka VanderLende, Katelynne Hart and Alice Hill have a busy week ahead of them. On Friday, the cross country runners will be in Fayetteville, Ark., competing in distance events at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. The next day, they’ll hit the road, driving to Stillwater, Okla., for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. But for the Michigan women’s cross country team, the schedule crunch is worth it after all it had to go through to be there.

This schedule is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which moved all NCAA championships to the spring. That change put cross country in an especially perilous position given that many of its runners also compete on the track team. But the eighth-ranked Wolverines are committed to making it work. After all, there were times when it didn’t look like Michigan would get here, so now, they’re relishing every chance.

During the mandated two-week shutdown of the athletic department in late January, the cross country teams missed out on Big Ten Championships, the only meet on their schedule and the only one approved by the conference. Teams, no matter how highly ranked, were required to compete in at least one meet to qualify for nationals.

But on Jan. 29, the Wolverines were given a waiver to compete in one non-conference meet to fulfill their requirements. That meet was the Last Chance Invitational, held Friday in Tallahassee, Fla. 

Michigan won decisively, defeating South Florida, West Florida and Dalton State and took the top seven spots in the individual standings, giving the team a perfect score of 15 points. Two days later, the Wolverines found out they had qualified for NCAAs for the 19th consecutive year.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for this and we’re very grateful that the administrators of the Big Ten Conference gave us the opportunity,” Michigan coach Mike McGuire said.

Michigan was led by individual winner VanderLende; the sophomore finished with a time of 20:31.3 on the 6k course. Senior Kathryn House finished second with 21:11.4, while senior Jena Metwalli took third with 21:17.7.

“It looked like (VanderLende’s) third cross country meet of the year rather than her first,” McGuire said. “She just looked very strong and did a great job, basically ran kind of an even split. The course, it was basically two laps, and she looked every bit as strong in lap two as she did on lap one, so just kind of a continuation of what she’s accomplished on the track up to this point.”

The Wolverines weren’t able to prepare using their normal methods thanks to the weather — it’s colder and wetter now than in the fall, making cross country course conditions worse — and the track season being in full swing. Though Michigan’s times were worse than what McGuire believes they would be in ideal conditions, McGuire lauded his team’s pacing and race management and felt they did well given the circumstances.

“We’re coming off momentum of having outstanding track marks and then we go back into a sport now where it’s even more of a team sport than track in the fact that you’re accountable to your teammate running beside you in a race, that type of thing,” McGuire said. “They’ve done a great job of parlaying what they accomplished in their individual track times leading up to it. And we know we have a good pack — the pack can be smewhat fluid in our order — but what we’re looking for is good effort out of the pack and we feel like we got that.”

The No. 17 men’s cross country team also competed at the Last Chance Meet, placing second among five teams that also included Syracuse, Florida State, Temple and South Florida. The Wolverines’ top finisher, graduate student Devin Meyrer, took third with a time of 23:47.9 on the 8k course. Also in the top 10 were fifth-year senior Joost Plaetinck at sixth and sophomore Tom Brady at 10th.

That performance wasn’t enough for the men to land one of 31 slots at NCAAs, the first time since 2016 Michigan has failed to qualify. Meyrer did qualify as an individual and thus will be his team’s lone representative competing this weekend. Men’s coach Kevin Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, now that the women’s team has qualified for NCAA Championships, it faces a whirlwind weekend of running ahead. While VanderLende, Hart and Hill compete in track, the rest of the team will fly to Stillwater on Saturday and await their teammates and coach.

Considering what it took to get here, the Wolverines will absolutely take it.

“We’ll all race on Monday morning,” McGuire said. “And then we’ll take a break for a while, because we’ll need one.”

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