The Michigan women’s cross country team came to the John McNichols Invitational with a chance to prove it belonged amongst the nation’s elite. Led by freshman sensation Erika VanderLende — the number one freshman in the country according to FloTrack — the Wolverines showed they are close to it by placing fourth against a 21-team field that included three other top-10 teams.
This wasn’t just any early-season race, however. The course at Indiana State is the site of the 2019 NCAA Championships for the 19th consecutive season, though this race was just 5,000 meters, 1,000 meters shorter than the championship race.
Michigan was also without a few key runners. Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Ann Forsyth, ran unattached along with freshman Amber Gall. As for sophomore Jessi Larson, who was a member of last year’s top-four finishing squad at NCAA’s, status is more complicated.
“It’s 50/50 if we have her for the championship part of the season, ” said Michigan coach Mike McGuire.
VanderLende had a standout performance for the Wolverines on Saturday, coming in fourth overall, behind only an NCAA champion Werner and two other seniors. As a Michigan high school record holder in the two mile and No. 1 nationally for that event in 2019 at Rockford, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that VanderLende is already competing at such a high level. The race saw her go with the lead group from the gun and never fall off to the chase pack. Her time of 16:40.1 is also the fastest time by a Michigan runner at this course, eclipsing the previous mark set by Katie McGregor back in 1998 by over 20 seconds.
“She did a nice job moving up through the third and fourth kilometer, ” McGuire said. “Really happy with how she ran. ”
VanderLende wasn’t the only Michigan runner to finish near the top, though. Seven other Michigan runners finished in the top 35, two greater than any other team at the meet. As the Wolverines’ biggest strength coming into this season was their depth, Saturday proved just that. Juniors Kathryn House and Maddy Trevisan came in second and third for the team, respectively, and behind them was a group of five Michigan runners within nine places of each other.
“We did a nice job packing, ” McGuire said. “We’d like to and we feel we can move that pack up closer to our third runner.”
Though the Wolverines felt good about their performances, they didn't pull anything unexpected and beat any teams they weren’t supposed to. They came in fourth behind the other three nationally-ranked schools present at the meet, and if they want to be one of the teams to beat, they’re going to need to beat those types of teams.
“We were solid, but at the same time we are capable of getting better, ” McGuire said. “If we sure some things up, we can be a contending team going forward.”