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Aim for nationals: Northern Michigan University women’s cross country looks to bounce back after missing NCAAs last fall

Northern Michigan University’s Nicole Schneider, right, and Hanna Torvi, second from right, trail Michigan Tech pack leader Robyn Holmes, second from left, near the beginning of the Upper Peninsula Championships women’s cross country race at the NMU Golf Course in Chocolay Township on Oct. 19. The trio all finished within three seconds of each other with Schneider winning. (Photo courtesy Cory Genovese/NMU Athletics)

MARQUETTE — After making three straight trips to the NCAA Division II national championships, the Northern Michigan University women’s cross country team had established itself as one of the premier running squads, not only in the GLIAC, but in the Midwest as well.

That streak of national bids came to an end last year, though, as the Wildcats went into a rebuilding mode after losing several seniors to graduation, including Menominee native and All-American Kameron Burmeister.

NMU finished 11th at last fall’s Midwest Region championships and missed the cut for nationals.

Looking back on last year, Wildcats head coach Jenny Ryan has mixed feelings and sees both positives and negatives out of the season.

“It was, in a way, a frustrating season just because two of our top athletes had some issues,” she said. “Katelyn Smith got sick and ended up with pneumonia, and Abby Fifarek, who was a senior, ended up with a knee injury. She came back, but not completely back.

Northern Michigan University senior Nicole Schneider shows off her winning form at the Upper Peninsula Championships women's cross country race at the NMU Golf Course in Chocolay Township on Oct. 19. (Photo courtesy Cory Genovese/NMU Athletics)

“So it was frustrating in that way because I think we would’ve been better if we had the full squad healthy.

“But at the same time, I was really happy with how it went with the whole rest of the group and with my group of freshmen that had come in that year and just the bond that they made right away and the hard work they put in.”

For this season, Northern loses a couple of key runners in Fifarek and Sophie McDonald, the latter being the Wildcats’ top finisher at the Midwest Regional.

Ryan said that Nicole Schneider and Marquette native Shayla Huebner will also be missed, even though they were primarily known for competing in other sports. Schneider was a member of the Nordic skiing team and Huebner was an All-American mid-distance runner in track and field.

The Wildcats may have lost a decent chunk of its roster, but they’ve got a lot of quality returners this fall, led by Smith and Hanna Torvi. Ryan will also count on other upperclassmen to share the load.

“Katelyn is training really well and smarter this summer, so that’s good, and Hanna was one of our top runners last year,” Ryan said. “She ran indoor track and steeplechase last year and she’ll be a senior and another leader.

“Ellise Longley, she’ll be a junior and she made a big step up last year and into the track season.

“Then that whole group of freshmen. Anna Kelley, who almost ended up scoring points at the outdoor conference (track and field meet) in the 1,500 (-meter run). Aubrey Friedrich and Katrina Salmen, and we also have Paige Du Bois. She transferred last year and I think she’s going to be a key component. I think just making the adjustment took her a little while, but I think she definitely did some great things last year.

“Now I think she’s adjusted to our program and kind of got through the transition of dealing with everything in (Minnesota-)Duluth. She’s just a great addition, so she’ll be right up there.

“And then (West Iron County alumna) Victoria Harris, who has been in the program but has had a lot of health issues and family issues and all kinds of stuff. Just some bad luck throughout her whole career. She’s had a great summer training and she ran a couple road races and ran really well.

“She ran that half marathon at the (Houghton-Hancock) canal, so she’s a good one that will be a dark horse. We have a good group coming back.”

That was a reference to Harris, an NMU junior, winning the women’s division at the Hancock Canal Run just a few weeks ago.

Ryan is also pleased with her freshmen recruiting class, which she thinks is one of her strongest ever.

“I have Paige Saiz and she went to Highland Milford,” she said. “She’s a very talented mid-distance and distance runner. Then there’s Megan Langworthy from Big Rapids. She’s really talented in the distance and Morgan Lyon from Traverse City is more of an 800(-meter) runner, but I definitely think she could be in there.

“Madison Malon, she ran really well as a sophomore and junior in high school, but then she had that compartment syndrome. So she had that surgery and her times her senior year weren’t great, but she’s recovered now. So I think she’s going to be a surprise.

“I also have a girl coming from Denmark and she’s an 800 and 1,500 runner for track and is really good, but she’s run some cross country and I think if not this year, the next couple of years she’ll be right in there.

“I think they’re going to surprise and push that top group. I think there’s probably three of them in there that could and it’s going to be hard to say, depending how their training went this summer and if things are going well. If not, they’re going to be a strong addition into that (No.) 5 to 12 area and we’ll be stronger than we’ve ever been, which is really good.”

Northern opens the season with an exhibition meet on Tuesday afternoon at Houghton against Michigan Tech, followed by a small meet at Northwood on Sept. 7.

Ryan thinks those meets will be good for everyone to have a chance to race. Things heat up, though, as the always-competitive Spartan Invitational in East Lansing and Roy Griak Invitational in St. Paul, Minnesota, come up later in September, with the Conference Crossover coming up in mid-October before the Wildcats host the U.P. Championships at the NMU Golf Course on Oct. 18.

When asked if she thinks she has a team that is good enough to get back to the national championships, Ryan was positive.

“I really think we do,” she said. “We lost some good people, but we were missing Katelyn, who I think is back to 100 percent, and some kids that were held up last year have made a huge step.

“Then with this new group, I definitely think we have a shot at it for sure.”

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