Women’s cross-country hunkers down for season’s final stretch

Mizzou has not qualified for the NCAA Championship Meet since 2003.

Missouri cross-country runners compete at the Pre-National Invitational. Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics/Cheryl Treworgy

With less than three weeks to go before the NCAA Regional Meet in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 11, the Missouri women’s cross-country team is gearing up for the most important five-week stretch of the cross-country year: championship season.

But this year is different than past ones.

Mizzou has its best chance to earn a bid to compete in the NCAA Championships Meet since Marc Burns took over the cross-country program in 2014. NCAAs will take place on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana. The team has not qualified for a bid to the race since 2004.

Junior Karissa Schweizer said she likes her team’s chances, especially after its 12th-place finish at the Pre-Nationals Meet in Terre Haute on Oct. 15. Schweizer finished fourth in the race and has moved up to No. 12 in the rankings for top female cross-country runners in the country, according to Flowtrack.org.

“I think this is a National qualifying team,” Schweizer said. “We still haven’t quite shown what we’re capable of, and I think that’s going to be really awesome to see when it happens.”

Junior Kaitlyn Fischer said this is the first year she’s been on the team where she felt like discussions about a Nationals berth were legitimate.

“It’s one thing to talk about Nationals, but it’s another thing to actually understand and feel that we’re in the hunt,” Fischer said. “I definitely feel it this year more than any other year.”

To qualify for Nationals, the Tigers will have to either finish in the top two at the Region meet or be one of 12 teams that receive at-large bids to the race based off points accumulated during the year. Mizzou’s final chance to earn such points before the regional meet will be at the Southeastern Conference Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Oct. 28.

At SECs, Burns said the team will be looking to beat both schools they have already finished ahead of earlier in the year and teams they have not yet run against.

“We have an opportunity to beat some teams that are probably going to get [into NCAAs],” Burns said. “Mississippi will probably get in, and we’ve got to try and beat them. Mississippi State should get in, so another win against them would be huge. Vanderbilt always has a chance in their region because their region is weak, so getting a win on them would be good. Getting another win on Florida would also be big. If we can beat some of those teams in two weeks, we’ll help ourselves.”

Burns said Pre-Nationals was a valuable learning experience for the team and showed them how much they’ve improved since last season, when the team finished 33rd at Pre-Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky. However, Burns stressed there is still room for the team to improve between now and Regionals.

“We ran well,” Burns said. “I thought Karissa [Schweizer] ran great, and Ellyn Atkinson, our fifth runner, ran amazing. That … 2-3-4 group [of Teylar Adelsberger, Jamie Kempfer and Nicole Mello ran well, but not great. They can run better. They didn’t have the best day, but they kept fighting; they kept battling. That’s what allowed us to finish 12th.”

In the coming weeks, Burns said he will be emphasizing the importance of smart, confident, tapered training in preparation for the biggest races of the season.

“If you can go to a championship race with big emotional tanks and you do things right physically training-wise, you’re going to have success,” Burns said.

Although the Tigers had been hoping to finish in the top 10, many of Mizzou’s runners, including Fischer, said they were satisfied with the team’s overall performance at Terre Haute.

“It was encouraging that even though half of us didn’t do what we wanted to do [individually], we still got 12th, we still beat Kansas and we still beat Florida,” Fischer said.

According to Adelsberger, the team is “hungry for more” after running well against some of the other top cross-country programs in the country. Adelsberger also said there is a different mentality around the team this year than in previous years.

“Some of the girls, myself included, were realizing that this is it,” Adelsberger said. “This is our last chance, so we want to do as much as we can by consistently doing all the little things because we don’t have another shot at it.”

The Tigers are not the only ones who have noticed their emergence as a cross-country contender this season. The team has received votes in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association NCAA Division I Coaches’ Poll multiple times this season, including nine votes in the most recent poll. The team is also currently ranked No. 4 by the poll in the Midwest region, behind Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Minnesota.

Fischer said the Tigers feel they can compete with the top three teams in their region.

“We can beat all of them,” Fischer said. “They’re not unbeatable at all. Even to get third [in the region], that would be great.”

A third-place finish at the Region meet would give Mizzou a good chance at a Nationals berth, as five Midwest region teams made the Nationals meet last year. For now, the team’s focus is on being at its very best in the coming weeks.

“We’re all realizing our potential,” sophomore Jamie Kempfer said. “We know what we need to do to maximize it.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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