RRW: Dani Jones, Morgan McDonald Sprint to NCAA Cross Country Titles
Colorado & Northern Arizona Take Team Titles
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
VERONA, WISCONSIN (17-Nov) — In sub-freezing temperatures and with freshly-fallen snow on the course, Colorado’s Dani Jones and Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald both sprinted to individual titles at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships here at the Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course just south of Madison. Jones’s Colorado Buffaloes squad also won the coveted women’s team title with 65 points, upsetting defending champions New Mexico, while the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks won the men’s team title for the third consecutive time with 83 points.
The snow, which only began falling in the pre-dawn hours and stopped more than two hours before the race, covered the long green turf of the Zimmer course with a sugary white coating. The hazy sunshine warmed the snow just enough to make conditions slippery and slow, but most athletes dismissed the snow’s impact on the results of the race.
“It was snowier than I expected, but everyone had to deal with it,” observed Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson. “It played out well. I think everyone was ready for it, everyone had to deal with it. I thought it was more fun that way.”
Jones, a talented 1500m runner who does some of her training with Olympic 1500m bronze medalist Jenny Simpson, knew her best strategy was to stay with the pack over the 6-kilometer distance and try to win with her powerful kick at the end. But Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer, a 10,000m runner, wanted a faster pace from the start. Rohrer, whose loping style sometimes gets her tangled with other runners, took the early lead almost by accident, leading the field through 2 km in 6:38 with Boise State steeplechaser Allie Ostrander just a tenth of a second behind.
“I was kind of surprised that no one took it,” Rohrer told reporters after the race. “It didn’t really, actually, go that fast the first half, and I wasn’t planning on leading. I like to run on the outside because I get tangled in with people, and since I was on the outside it just kind of pushed me to the front. It wasn’t the plan, but I’m comfortable up front.”
After two more kilometers of running (13:28), little had changed. Rohrer and Ostrander were still the leaders, but another 18 women were still close behind including Jones, Oregon’s Jessica Hull, Stanford’s Elise Cranny, New Mexico’s Ednah Kurgat (the defending champion), Wisconsin’s Monson, and BYU’s Erica Birk, all podium contenders. That was too big a group for New Mexico’s Weini Kelati, last year’s top-performing freshman, and she decided to break up the race, using the next downhill after the 4-kilometer mark. She quickly built an ten-meter lead, knowing that she was not the best sprinter in the group.
“In the end there are runners who have more speed than I do,” Kelati told Race Results Weekly. “I just have to keep going, whatever is going to happen, and just try your best until the finishing line.”
Kelati’s lead grew a little bit more as, one by one, the women behind her began to fade. A new chase pack formed with Jones, Hull, Monson, Kurgat, Ostrander and Birk. For a moment, Jones thought she was running for second, but got an unexpected jolt from one of her coaches, Riley Masters, who shouted to her from the side of the course.
“With 400 or 800 to go a BYU girl (Birk) was really pushing it,” Jones told reporters. “I felt good and I went with her. And then with 400 to go I went around her, and I went by my volunteer assistant coach Riley, and he just got me so amped! And I thought, you know what? It’s not over.”
The final 300 meters or so of the Zimmer course is uphill, and Jones used the little downhill before that to draw even with Kelati. Then Jones hit the gas, and passed the sprinting Kelati with authority. By the finish, Jones had nearly a three-second gap. She cross the line in 19:42.8, then immediately held her head in disbelief.
“Heather (Burroughs, her coach) the day before said, ‘If you’re by yourself that last stretch, just embrace it.’ That whole stretch I just felt four years just flashing by and it took my breath away. It was unbelievable, and I’ll never forget it.”
Kelati held strong for second place (19:45.3), and Hull pulled away from the others to take third in 19:50.4. Monson, Kurgat, Ostrander, and Birk rounded out the top-7.
Jones’s joy was only about to grow. Behind her, the rest of the Buffalo team had done an incredible job and not only won, but dominated, the team competition. Makena Morley finished eighth, Tabor Scholl was 15th, Sage Hurta 22nd, and Tayler Tuttle 24th to score just 65 points. Although New Mexico’s top-3 women finished second, fifth and ninth (Charlotte Prouse), their fourth and fifth runners, Adva Cohen and Emily Martin, finished 43rd and 55th, respectfully, to score 103 points. Jones, who was spiked on her left shin, said the team title actually meant more to her.
“The team title, one hundred percent,” she said, choking up.
The men’s race, over the 10-kilometer distance instead, played out similarly. Conner Mantz, the Brigham Young freshman, and Joe Klecker, the Colorado junior, did most of the leading through 6 km (17:35), and the lead pack still had 20 runners. Klecker said he hadn’t planned to lead, but once he was there he was going to hold his position and run strong.
“I just found myself pushing the race, and I figured we’re Colorado; we run gutty, we run strong,” Klecker told reporters. “When I was up there I wasn’t going to back down.”
Like Jones, McDonald was content to wait, sit-in with the group, and be cautious. The pack still had 12 men at 8 km (23:32), and he tried to remain patient.
“I’ll be honest,” McDonald told reporters. “I wasn’t going to get too caught up on any strategy. I would have liked it to go fast the whole way just so the race is a little easier when it’s spread out like that. With so many people there it’s a bit more uncertainty. But, I knew if there was a kick I would have a pretty good shot. So, I wasn’t that worried.”
McDonald knew his biggest rival in the final sprint would be Stanford’s Grant Fisher who, like McDonald, was a senior running his last NCAA Cross Country Championships. Fisher was having the same thoughts as McDonald.
“It was pretty crowded with a K to go, so I knew it would kind of be hectic at the end,” Fisher said. “I managed to find some space and tried to really wind up my kick. Think I did a good job of that.”
But Morgan, who had run on this course hundreds of times as a Wisconsin Badger, would not be denied. He knew every inch of that final 300 meters to the finish, and with the crowd on both sides packed with Badger fans screaming his name he dug deep.
“The last 400 was crazy,” said McDonald. “Going into that I was telling myself, how many times have I done that straightaway? I knew it better than anyone else. You know, it was just the final time to do it. A had a lot of emotion going into that straightaway. With 200 to go I just went all-out, pedal to the metal and go for it.”
Only half a second separated McDonald from Fisher at the end, but it was good enough to claim the title, 29:08.3 to 29:08.8. Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat got third just a stride behind Fisher in 29:09.0. Oklahoma State freshman Isai Rodriguez was a surprise fourth, followed by Furman’s Aaron Templeton in fifth, Northern Arizona’s Tyler day in sixth, Campbell’s Amon Kemboi in seventh, and Klecker in eighth. Early leader Mantz finished tenth.
McDonald was elated, saying it was the most important victory of his career.
“Definitely it’s the best, and it’s so special,” he said. “I’ve put my heart and soul into it for so long. I’ve had so many great people around me and help me get here.”
Even though they did not put a man on the podium, Northern Arizona handily won the team title over Brigham Young, 83 to 116 points. Team members hugged each other and cried in the finish area.
“We just take them one by one,” Northern Arizona coach Mike Smith told LetsRun.com. He continued: “It’s all about each other. It’s only a team sport, and none of it is individual.”