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MADISON, Wisc. (16-Nov) -- Morgan McDonald has worn the Australian colors in five global championships, and placed eighth at last April's Commonwealth Games in the 5000m on home soil. But the 22 year-old senior from Sydney, who will be running his final cross country race tomorrow for the University of Wisconsin, said those championships don't compare to tomorrow's NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships here when it comes to his drive to succeed as a member of a team.
"I think anyone can tell you that there's something super special about running on a team, especially a team like Wisconsin," the bearded McDonald told reporters at a press conference here today. He continued: "That's definitely something that you don't get on the international stage. You're representing your country but, you know, it's not like a team of guys you've been running with. Like, I literally live with all of the guys on the team. It's a very special and powerful thing to be able to step on that line and be wearing the same uniform, and racing for each other. I think it really helps to make it that much more special."
Distance running is an individual sport, and one athlete's chances or success typically defines the media narrative of any competition. Solitary effort --even loneliness-- is celebrated. But at the NCAA Cross Country Championships succeeding as a team takes precedence over individual glory. The fifth athlete to cross the finish line for each team --the last to score-- is as important as the first for achieving the lowest tally of team points. Athletes said repeatedly here today that running for their teams is what would drive their performances tomorrow at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course in nearby Verona.
"I think running with a team elevates the experience, not just during the race but in every part leading up to the race: going to the banquet with your team, doing pre-meet with your team, staying in a hotel with your team," said steeplechaser Allie Ostrander of Boise State who, like McDonald, is one of the favorites to win the individual title tomorrow. "I mean, they keep me relaxed and they keep the experience really fun. And, I think sometimes when the stakes are so high it's easy to lose sight of why we're here, because we love running. When I'm surrounded by all these girls that I love so much it's easy to keep everything in perspective."
The reigning team champions are the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona University on the men's side, coached by Mike Smith, and the Lobos of the University of New Mexico on the women's side, coached by Joe Franklin. Both teams were ranked #1 in the latest coach's poll, and at last weekend's Mountain Region Championships in Provo, Utah, both teams were victorious with low scores of 42 and 41 points, respectively.
The Northern Arizona men have won the national title the last two years, led by Matt Baxter and Tyler Day who finished second and third, respectively, a year ago. Baxter, who is from New Zealand, acknowledged that his Wisconsin rivals may have an advantage by running on their home course, but he was dismissive of their chances to stop the Lumberjacks from scoring a three-peat. He reminded reporters that his team had run on the course twice this year already, first at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on September 28 (where they finished first), and then at the NCAA Pre-Nationals on October 13 (where they won the very competitive "Cardinal" division over both Stanford and Colorado).
"It has been nice for us to come here for Nuttycombe and Pre-Nats and get an idea on how the course is this year," Baxter said. "I think for us, that's all we need. We need to go over it once to see how the 10-K loop looks and feels, and for us they're sweet." After a slight pause he added: "In terms of the home-course advantage I think maybe those Wisconsin boys may need that."
Baxter's coach Mike Smith was more sober about his chances tomorrow. Sitting next to Brigham Young University coach Ed Eyestone, whose team is likely to be the top rival for NAU, Smith said that focusing on the fundamental factors which got them here was the key to success.
"Defending and creating the circumstances to get a championship get harder the next time around," Smith said. He continued: "We try to keep the fundamentals which allowed us to arrive in this place in 2016."
The New Mexico woman won the team title in both 2015 and 2017. In last year's championships, their top star Ednah Kurgat won the individual title and their second woman was Weini Kelati, the top freshman. Both women are back, and Kelati --who was born in Eritrea but competed in high school in Leesburg, Virginia-- could even beat Kurgat, a senior. But Kelati said that the team title was all that really mattered.
"Being with the team is important," said the petite athlete. "You're not just racing for yourself. It's very important to bring your team here."
The women of the University of Oregon, ranked #2 in the latest coach's poll, won the team title in 2016 under coaches Andy and Maurica Powell. The Powells have moved to the University of Washington and Helen Lehman-Winters, the former coach at the University of San Francisco, has taken over the program. Although only coaching there for ten weeks, Lehman-Winters has piloted her Duck team to the Pac-12 Conference title. She's optimistic about tomorrow.
"What has occurred in that ten weeks has been pretty phenomenal," Lehman-Winters said. She added: "Our focus will be really gritty and hungry in the last 2-K."
One to four inches of snow is expected here tonight, and the race-time temperature will be around the freezing mark. Stanford star Grant Fisher, who does most of his training in sunny California, said he wasn't fazed by the weather.
"I grew up in Michigan, so definitely not my first time running in snow," Fisher told reporters. "Snow on the ground doesn't really change a lot."