Most teams would be satisfied with a second place finish in a conference championship, but it wasn’t enough for the No. 26 Michigan women’s cross country team. The Wolverines scored 86 points for a second place finish in the Big Ten, following only No. 23 Michigan State.
Michigan hosted the Big Ten Cross Country Championships (six kilometers) at the U-M Golf Course for the first time since 2008 last Friday. The Wolverines faced four other top-30 teams in this Big Ten meet and they pulled off upsets against two of them on their way to a second place team finish.
“We were one of the contending teams going in. We felt it was a four team battle,” Michigan coach Mike McGuire said. “We didn’t quite finish in the order we would’ve liked but I thought we gave great effort.”
Michigan was strong out of the gates, with two runners in the top four at the first mile marker. Senior Ericka VanderLende was in third with a split of 5:39.2 and junior Kayla Windemuller was in fourth at 5:39.3. Juniors Katelynne Hart and Samantha Tran, and senior Samantha Saenz, rounded out the Wolverines’ top-five for a team place of third early in the race.
Michigan’s strong start set the tone for the continued aggression it showed in its race strategy. Windemuller, the Wolverines’ top runner coming into the championship, continued to push the pace for her team until the third mile where she fell to 16th overall. But, this aggressive strategy allowed her teammates to push their own paces in pursuit, creating overall team success in the meet.
VanderLende moved up to second place at the third mile with a split of 16:37.0, followed by Ohio State’s Addie Engel, only 0.1 seconds behind. The rest of the lead pack remained close by, with only 0.6 seconds separating first and sixth place.
“The race plan was to stay in the front. I know Big Tens is a packed up bunch,” VanderLende said. “The goal is always to win, to stay connected as long as I (can). Third was not the goal.”
VanderLende remained in the front pack to finish third overall with a time of 20:13.6, a record for her 2022 season. Tran moved up to 10th with a time of 20:29.1, followed by Saenz, Hart and Windemuller, all finishing in the top 30.
Although Michigan upset both No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 22 Ohio State, its second place finish wasn’t the team’s goal. With one guaranteed meet left this season, the Wolverines will have to dig deep and rework their strategy for their NCAA Regional to clinch a spot at the national championship meet. An aggressive start across the board proved to be somewhat successful, but it needs to be honed in for the next challenge.
“We will shore up a couple things, but in that close race today, it’s kind of like rolling the dice,” McGuire said. “We’re right there. We’ll get past the disappointment of coming up a little short at home and move on from there.”
Michigan will face many tough matchups in its upcoming regional matchup. The Wolverines will be running in the NCAA Great Lakes Regional on Nov. 11 in Terre Haute, Ind., hoping to punch their ticket to Stillwater, Okla. for the NCAA Championships. They aren’t too worried, though, especially with a strong team finish at their conference championship.
“I think (the second place finish) gives us some more firepower going into regionals,” VanderLende said. “We can’t just be looking back on (this race). We have to keep striving. We’re just extra motivated for two weeks from now.”
That motivation will be important if Michigan plans on extending its season to Stillwater.