By Chris Lotsbom & David Monti, @chrislotsbom & @d9monti
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission.
TERRE HAUTE, IND. (21-Nov) -- Facing the media at a press conference in advance of tomorrow's NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships here, Michigan State's Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, Walt Drenth, looked a little tentative, like a high school student on the first day at a new school. In his eighth season leading the Spartans' women's squad, he never expected to be coaching the #1-ranked team going into these championships.
"It's great to be here," said Drenth, lightly clearing his throat. "I guess that probably goes without saying." He continued: "It's exciting to be kind of in the mix, and the kids have really embraced it. I really admire how they haven't gotten in their own way about this at all. It's just been kind of a cool ride."
Indeed. Drenth's team has gone undefeated this year, leading to their #1 ranking in the USTFCCCA polls for each week since October 21. The Spartans rolled to wins at the Bill Dellinger Invitational (hosted by the University of Oregon), Michigan State Spartan Invitational, Roy Griak Invitational (Minnesota), Wisconsin adidas Invitational, and the Big Ten Conference Meet.
Six days ago, the team put on a show at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional meet in Madison, Wisc., placing four athletes in the top six and scoring a mere 28 points. The Spartans' margin of victory to runner-up Wisconsin was an astounding 54 points.
Leading the way all season has been the tandem of redshirt senior and reigning NCAA steeplechase champion, Leah O'Connor (Croswell, Mich.), and redshirt sophomore Rachele Schulist (Grand Rapids, Mich.). Of their six meets this season, neither has finished any lower than ninth, a remarkable feat when considering they've faced strong teams like Oregon (ranked 3rd), Arkansas (4th), and Iowa State (5th).
"It's really great to be able to be here with my whole team; this whole season has been a huge journey," said O'Connor, speaking on behalf of her teammates. "It's my fifth year, so it's pretty cool."
Running nearly step-for-step with one another throughout the season, O'Connor and Schulist have created a bond that's led their team to be favorites here in Cross Country Town USA. Five times in the last 11 years the number-one ranked women's team entering the NCAA Championships has walked away with top honors. Knowing they are the pre-meet favorites hasn't altered the Spartans' outlook.
"I don't think it's changed much of anything," said O'Connor, smiling with obvious pride. "It's flattering, it's cool to be ranked number one. But honestly it doesn't really mean that much. What really matters is how we perform and the effort that we put in and the fact that we've been able to stay strong as a team and to not let that affect us has been really cool.
O'Connor credited Drenth, with help from assistant coach Lisa Senakiewich, for keeping the team focused on the day-to-day work and not getting caught up in their own success.
"I attribute that to really good coaching 'cause they keep us grounded," O'Connor asserted. "This team is amazing, and I wish they could all be up here (at the press conference) because they are so awesome."
While the Spartans top two runners in O'Connor and Schulist are very close --living, working, and specifically training together-- it's the following five that give them their best chance to win the women's title in the 39-year history of these championships.
In addition to O'Connor and Schulist, Julia Otwell (Traverse City, Mich.), Lindsy Clark (West Bloomfield, Mich.), Alexis Wiersma (Allendale, Mich.), Sara Kroll (Westland, Mich.), and Sara Stassen (Dearborn, Mich.) all finished in the top 24 at the Great Lakes Regional, a testament to the Spartans' tremendous depth. Incredibly, in an era where foreign athletes have come to dominate the top ranks of the NCAA, all seven athletes competing at regionals were from the state of Michigan. However, in tomorrow's race Michigander Sara Stassen is likely to be replaced by Katie Landwehr (Tipp City, Ohio), according to Drenth.
"I think we'll end up with Katie Landwehr, where she's from Ohio, she's kind of like a foreigner to us," joked Drenth, who elicited loud laughs from the media.
It's that relaxed and family-like mentality that has helped Michigan State throughout this year. Back on campus in Lansing, athletes and faculty are supporting the Spartans, hoping they can claim their first ever cross country national title.
"I think there's a lot of pride. I think everybody is excited," O'Connor proclaimed. "There's so much support. Support from professors, our track people, our jumpers, our sprinters, they are all making the trip down. The younger girls on the team. You can just feel the love and that's something that's really awesome about Michigan State. Everybody supports all the different sports. It's been really fun."
Within the team there are five fifth-year seniors hoping to graduate on top.
"This is just something that we have been building towards for a really really long time," said O'Connor. "We never really thought, OK we want to win the national title. But we knew that if we worked together and got stronger as a group then we could do amazing things. "I think no matter what happens on Saturday that to be able to cross the finish line and share that with that group of girls is going to be amazing. Those are my best friends."
Drenth emphasized that tomorrow's race won't be about him, but about a hard-working and close-knit team, working together towards a common goal.
"I'm not running," Drenth said seriously. "This isn't my national championships. I represent folks who are special people. It's their chance to see how good they can be. So, I haven't gone to that point where this is going to define me as a human being, coach or anything."
Drenth said he's already looking past these championships to something just as important.
"Do you know what I get to do next week?" he asked rhetorically. "Cook dinner for a bunch of family. That's how I kind of define myself, probably."