MARQUETTE - With strong conference and regional performances in 2012, seven of the top 10 runners returning and a handful of promising freshmen, the Northern Michigan University women's cross country team enters the 2013 season with elevated expectations.
The 'Cats are eyeing nationals.
"The goal for the team, what we've been looking at this whole year, is to try to make the national championships," said head cross country coach Jenny Ryan.
Last year, the team finished fourth in the GLIAC and advanced to regionals, where it placed eighth. The top five teams qualify for nationals.
Nearly all of the cross country runners are multi-sport athletes, also competing on the Nordic ski team in the winter or track and field team in the spring. All the athletes follow a training plan on their own over the summer.
"We start [racing] that first week of school, so they have to come in in shape," Ryan said. "They have to be dedicated through the summer."
The Wildcats placed sixth out of 16 teams at their first race of the season on Sept. 14. Ryan said the field was the strongest it's ever been at this year's Midwest College Opener, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
"Last year we won that meet, but we actually raced faster this year and placed sixth," Ryan said. "We've got a great team, they work well together, they work hard and I just see them moving forward through the season."
Captains Olivia Howard and Chelsea Farquhar set the pace for NMU, finishing 28th and 29th with times of 19 minutes, 14 seconds and 19:14.2, respectively. Larissa Halonen, newcomer Xavier Donajkowski and Christina Toogood all finished less than 10 seconds later.
"It was cool to see how well the girls did and how excited they were about their races," Howard said. "Just finishing that one and not having anyone feel defeated by such a tough course is huge."
In their second meet of the season, the 'Cats dominated the same course they will run at the GLIAC Championships in October. The team took first place at the Pre-GLIAC Meet hosted by Michigan Tech last weekend.
NMU swept the podium and then some, with seven Wildcats finishing in the top eight. Mary Kate Cirelli, Howard, Megan Edic, Jordyn Ross and Toogood placed first through fifth, respectively.
"The athletes definitely tested themselves on Tech's course," Ryan said. "We still need to work on the start of the race as it will be much more crowded with all of the GLIAC teams there, and they need to make sure they get in a good position."
Next up for the Wildcats is the Roy Griak Invite, the biggest cross country meet in the United States. Hosted by the University of Minnesota, NMU will have the opportunity to race against some of the top talent in the country on Saturday.
"We have a huge field of runners, so we get to see lots of competition and lots of speed," said senior captain Mandy Dye. "It's a great chance to practice running as a team with 300 other runners, which is really difficult to do sometimes."
Ryan said it's important for the athletes to start faster at the Roy Griak to avoid being buried in the pack, because it takes more effort and time to weave around everyone if they get too far back.
"These meets are really just to test the waters to see how far we can push ourselves," Howard said. "Running without fear is huge. We should be in the front. We are that strong and we need to carry that over to conference."