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(Photo: Evan Carter / Courtesy)

For the fifth year in a row and the eighth time ever, the Hillsdale College women’s cross country team qualified for the NCAA Division II Championships after taking second at the Midwest Regional in Cedarville, Ohio.

The team of girls that secured Hillsdale’s victory is young and learning as they run, head coach Andrew Towne said. In fact, four will be competing at the Nov. 18 championship race for the first time: three freshmen and sophomore Arena Lewis, who is a freshman “for all intents and purposes,” as health concerns cut down on her opportunities to race this year and last.

“It probably wasn’t as good of a performance as Nashville, but it was still solid,” Towne said. “I think we had more better races at Nashville, but it’s certainly not a letdown — this is probably our second best.”

Moving forward, the team’s biggest goal is to accomplish what they set out to achieve at the beginning of the season: get on the podium at the NCAA championships, he said.

The top seven runners from the G-MAC Championship meet in late October competed this past weekend. Senior Hannah McIntyre led Hillsdale, taking second overall with a time of 21:25.5, just six seconds behind Walsh’s Sarah Berger, this year’s regional champion.

“Hannah McIntyre was tremendous,” Towne said. “That was her best race of the year, she really put herself in a position to win.”

With two kilometers to go, it was just McIntyre and Berger, and as they ascended, Berger gapped her.

“She’s amazing,” McIntyre said. “This is her first year running cross, I think she has untapped levels of challenge.” 

Overall, however, McIntyre said the race didn’t feel like a grind and she admitted she had fun.

Lewis placed ninth overall with a time of 21:54 and freshman Christina Sawyer placed 18th with a time of 22:02.

“Arena Lewis was solid, like she has been all championship season,” Towne said. “Christina Sawyer was great, along with Hannah, it was her most impressive performance.”

Sawyer said it was probably her best race this season, and a lot of things came together.

“I think I have a little more in me, hopefully at nationals I’ll be able to make an impact for the team more than I did this weekend,” she said.

Sawyer said the younger team members are looking to the upperclassmen for racing wisdom and mental preparation going into nationals.

“It’s going to be exciting, it’s awesome we have so many younger people — that means when people graduate, the team will still be strong,” she said.

Freshman Maryssa Depies finished 24th overall in 22:14 and junior Allysen Eads right behind her in 28th with a time of 22:29.4.

Over the last four to five years, Towne said Hillsdale has been gaining a national reputation as a team to watch. Other Midwestern teams, such as Grand Valley State University and Walsh, also factor into the national, not just regional, conversation, which is one of the strengths of the Midwest region, Towne said.

This year, the top three teams from each of the eight regions automatically qualify for nationals. From there, eight teams are chosen at-large in a straight-line comparison of teams based on their overall regional ranking.

This means that nationally, how a team compares could be different from how it compares regionally, since it could be ranked low regionally but high nationally, or vice versa. Traditionally, the strongest regions are the Midwest and South-Central regions, the latter including the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, which Towne said has strong runners because they are used to altitude running.

Preparing for nationals, Towne said it’s important for the girls to realize that no matter who the women see in front of them, they have to move forward and never accept who is in front.

“That’s important going into nationals because everyone is in your way,” Towne said. “We need to go in and focus on ourselves because if we put everything together we’re as good as anybody.”   

There is one reason McIntyre can point to for the team’s success this season.

“The whole team has run really well all season, and one of the reasons for that is that we’re laughing on the starting line,” McIntyre said. “We’re having fun: Almost right until the gun goes off, we’re making jokes, having fun, and treating each meet like just another race. If you build it up in your head, that’s not helpful.”

Going forward, it’s just a matter of continuing what the team has done all season, she said. This includes their pre-run chant, which used to be “1-2-3-Chargers!” but inexplicably changed to “It’s pizza time.”’

“I think this is really what made a difference,” McIntyre said. “Nobody knows what it means, and yet we all know what it means — and it’s a real metaphysical problem.”