The SXU women's cross country team warm up before a practice run at a nearby trail
The SXU women's cross country team warm up before a practice run at a nearby trail
Women's Cross Country - Wed, Aug. 31, 2016

Story by Corey Stolzenbach, volunteer assistant for SXU Sports Information

Last November, Saint Xavier's women's cross country team finished in 22nd place out of 36 total schools in the NAIA Cross Country Championships in Charlotte, N.C. This year, the Cougars rank 21st in the NAIA national preseason poll, a spot up from its No. 22 rank at the conclusion of 2015. SXU head coach Lisa Ebel has her aspirations for the 2016 rendition of her squad.

"We would like to move up in the conference," Ebel said. "We definitely want to move up at the national level. So really our focus is to be higher than 22nd at nationals…we've got to stay focused on what our goal is."

SXU's roster size for women's cross country has increased. Last year, 11 women made the roster. This year, it composes of 17 and all 11 from the 2015 team are back. Of the six freshmen who are new, Ebel said they are a fantastic class in every way.

"They're all extremely hard working," she said. "They're all very dedicated to doing their best. They're extremely supportive of their teammates."

Ebel said that while the team was 22nd last year in the national race, they lacked depth. It went from expecting a lot out of her top five runners in 2015 to not so much pressure in 2016 because of the depth.

"Grace [Maletich], we have a freshman we think can run in the top five," she said. "She's that good…Grace is training with our top five."

Standing out individually among returnees is NAIA All-American junior Ellie Willging. She took 23rd place in the national competition. An Illinois-Chicago transfer, Willging finished first at the Women's 5K in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last October and also finished first in the CCAC event Nov. 7. Despite these achievements in her first year at SXU, Willging said 2015 was more thrilling for her from a team perspective than from an individual one.

"Last year, the most exciting thing was just watching the team grow," Willging said. "Individual races, they're fun, but really at the end of it, it's fun to watch everyone come through the shoot and experience it altogether."

Willging said this year she's going to hit the highest mileage she's ever had and that in preparation for the season that things change from year-to-year.

"I spent the summer running alone, and now, being back with the team is so exciting because it's fun to have people to push you in workouts," she said.

One returning runner who Ebel thinks has exponentially improved in terms of confidence is senior Nicole Watkins, who finished a season-high 18th at the Midwest Classic Cross Country Invitational hosted by Olivet Nazarene. Ebel said that she has gone from the confidence of a mid-distance track runner to putting together the pieces to run a great 5K and also said in 2016 Watkins will have her best year ever.

Watkins attributed to the past failures that she's had as a catalyst for her surging confidence.

"Coach always preached to me from freshman year that experience is everything and my seniors say experience was everything when I was a freshman and I was like, 'yeah, whatever, I think it's all talent,'" she said. "But, I was wrong and the experience that I've had, I've had very bad races at nationals, I've had good races now at nationals and experiencing both now I know what to do to put it together in my head to have a good season."

Senior Nicole Maier will spend her second season with the SXU cross country team after transferring over from Olivet Nazarene. Like Watkins, she also excelled in the Midwest Classic Cross Country Invitational last year, finishing in eighth place. She also found herself just outside the top 10 at the Cedar Rapids 5K (13th) and CCAC Championships (11th). On top of getting ready for her final year, Maier also was juggling a summer internship, serving as an accounting intern for Adler University.

"Just balancing everything out was probably the hardest part," Maier said. "Sometimes I'd get up before work, but rarely, and then sometimes I'd come home from work and have to do my run and everything. So just balancing and staying focused and I just had in the back of my mind that like, 'This is going to be my last season, I have to stay focused and just keep doing it and just staying motivated' was the biggest thing."  

Given experience and success of the returning runners, coupled with an expanded roster size and depth, there's no doubt Ebel sees improvement from a season ago.

"We're way better than we were last year," she said. "Now, others teams could greatly improve, too. The highest place that a Saint Xavier team has ever finished at Nationals is 16th [in 2011]. So, we can have in our mind, 'If we're top 15…we make history.'"