Trying to keep up the tradition

NMU cross country team looks to make fourth straight trip to NCAA Championships

MARQUETTE — The last couple of years have been good for the Northern Michigan University women’s cross country team and last season might’ve been its best one so far.

The Wildcats qualified for the NCAA Division II Championships for the third straight year and ninth overall. At the meet, NMU finished 13th out of 32 squads, one spot better than the previous season. Not only that, but then-senior Kameron Burmeister closed out her prestigious career with her second-straight All-American award.

“It was a really successful season,” Northern head coach Jenny Ryan said. “It was really exciting to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the third year and to have Kameron be an All-American. It was just a solid year.”

Heading into the year, Ryan had a feeling that it could be a big season due to the high amount of returning runners including Burmeister as well as runner and Nordic skier Vivian Hett.

“I actually did know that we’d have a good team because we had just about everybody back,” she said. “I really felt like with the top kids that we had and with the kids we had moving up that we would definitely have a solid year.”

This year will probably still be a good one, but a trip back to nationals may not be as much of a sure thing as the Wildcats lost both of their top two runners in Burmeister and Hett. Ryan thinks that a fourth-straight NCAA bid is a possibility, but that it’s not going to be a simple achievement.

“We lost two really key performers in Kameron and Vivian, so it’s definitely not going to be easy,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a good team, but I think we’re in a little bit of a rebuilding year. I think we have a shot at it, but it will be challenging to make it back to nationals. That will be our goal though.”

As far who will replace Burmeister as the team leader, Katelyn Smith appears to be the most likely candidate as she placed 56th at nationals, which was the Wildcats’ second-best time. Smith will have a decent supporting cast though with seniors Abby Fifarek and Sophie McDonald.

“Katelyn will be a junior and she has been slowly moving up in the ranks,” Ryan said. “She was our number two or number three runner for cross country and also had a good indoor and outdoor track season. It sounds like she’s had a good summer of training, so I definitely think she’s going to be our top runner.

“We have five of our top seven returning. Abby and Sophie were in the top five and they’re going to be back. Hanna Torvi was our (number) six or seven runner and she ended up getting third in the steeplechase (at the GLIAC Championships), so she had a good track season. Ellise Longley, who was just a freshman last year, made the team for the conference championships, so I think she’s going to move up. I think those ones will be the main group.”

It won’t just be veterans though on this year’s team as Ryan is bringing in a large recruiting class and some of them have the potential to crack into the Wildcats’ top five.

“I have a big group of new kids coming in, so we’ll have nine freshmen and there’s definitely some talent in there,” Ryan said. “So, I think we’ll have some depth. They are all solid runners and I guess you just never know until they get here and you see how it goes.”

As far as the GLIAC goes, Ryan thinks that Grand Valley State will be the top contender after winning the conference championship last year and taking sixth at nationals. She also sees Michigan Tech having a solid year and Saginaw Valley State possibly finishing in the top three.

“Grand Valley is always up there, but Michigan Tech finished third in the conference right behind us last year,” Ryan said. “They have pretty much their full squad coming back. So, for the first time in a long time, they’re going to be pretty competitive, which is kind of nice to have two U.P. schools be competitive. Other than that, there’s Saginaw Valley. They finished fourth in the conference and their squad has been improving and moving up. I think those will be probably be the main ones.”

NMU starts practice on Aug. 19 and will have a short training camp before having a scrimmage with Tech in Houghton on Aug. 30. The first official meet of the year is the Ray Helsing Bulldog Invitational, which is hosted by Ferris State down in Big Rapids on Sept. 8, so the Wildcats only have a short period of time to get up to speed. However, Ryan said she gave her runners some training ideas in the offseason to help get them into shape.

“I sent them some training guidelines over the summer, so they basically have to be ready to run 35 to 50 miles a week depending on if they’re freshmen or upperclassmen,” she said. “We do a 3K time trial right away during that preseason week, so we can see where they are at and then I can go from there as far as setting up the different training groups during the workouts so we can base our training off of where they are at and they can slowly improve their performances at a good level. That way we don’t run them too hard or too slow.”

All things considered, Ryan thinks that although an NCAA Championships appearance may not be as likely as the previous few years, her team could still have a solid season and that NMU could be back at nationals in a short period of time.

“Maybe we’re not quite at that level because those were definitely a successful few years, but I feel we have some great runners coming back and I’m really excited about the crew coming in,” Ryan said. “I think it’s going to be a good year and I’m excited to see the couple of years after that because I think we can right back up to where we were within a year or two.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.