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North Central Women’s Cross Country plan for the long term

Having gone seven years without a CCIW championship, coming out of two seasons affected by a pandemic, and with a very young roster, the 2022 season presented a perfect opportunity for North Central Women’s Cross Country to reset, look long term, and work to take the steps necessary to position themselves for future success.

“Our goal was to be top ten in the regional,” said women’s cross country head coach Mahesh Narayanan. “So for us really it was really, for a young team, we’re a two-year process I believe. Really we’re in a good place. We ended up with an all-regional runner, you know, and we got the ladies back on that stage.”

“So given that we’re a young team like I know for me, like freshman year, it just took like a month, like getting into it to kind of just get the hang of everything,” said sophomore Julia Benes. “So I feel like it’s kind of the same this year. It just takes a little bit at the beginning of the season to kind of figure out like your team dynamic and everything else with that.”

“I think initially starting out college since we had like newcomers and we had some transfers, it’s a little daunting just seeing all the different things you’re going to have to do for months on end,” said junior Nicole Brandy. “But I think that we did a really good job of building team dynamics and just helping push each other along. So I think the biggest area that we grew was just not being as afraid anymore and helping to push each other.”

A young roster and thus young leaders

With only two seniors on the roster, leadership became more evenly dispersed across the team with runners taking on more responsibility as the season progressed. While everyone wants to win and succeed as soon as possible, this season also required the discipline to stay focused on their goals and maintain concentration on their growth as a team.

“You’ve gotta be patient,” Narayanan said of leading a young team. “And this is where I’m a very excitable type person. And admittedly, I like things right away, but it’s one of those things, let’s slow roll it. Let’s temper the front end of the season. We’ve got to think about health. We’ve got to think about experience. We want to play the long game, meaning the long game of let’s get to the conference meet, toward the championship season, take a few knocks along the way in terms of maybe not beating certain people and things like that, but we wanted to get to the championship season, meaning getting to the end of October. And so I’d say our team was ready and poised and performed.”

“I think I see it more as a benefit because we are a younger team, so we have so much more time to grow,” Benes said. “And I think where we’re already at for us being like year one. So I think it’s more just like exciting to see where we go and not so much more of like a challenge.”

“I think that it was interesting going into this season just because I realized, oh, my goodness, I’m a junior now, I need to make sure that I’m becoming more of a leader,” Brandy said. “I think that leadership, though, it’s something that you don’t just have to be an upperclassman to do. I think a lot of the underclassmen this year took some big steps up into becoming leaders, and I think I definitely felt it at the beginning of the season. But as it progressed, I think we all started to develop our leadership skills and communicate. So that was good.”

“And sometimes leadership comes out in different ways,” Narayanan continued. “Sometimes influence comes out in different ways. And so those are really important things to keep in mind and be mindful of. Maybe a better way to look at it is we didn’t have a toxic culture. We had a strong culture where a group was tight and concise. We were a smaller roster than we’ve been in many years. And so the idea that they banded together and they all actively chose to be part of that. So there was no sect of this or a group of that. They banded together and became a group that wanted to do well and again wanted to go into the fire of some really good competition.”

Meeting goals and new achievements

After finishing in second place as a team at the CCIW women’s cross country championship, the team met Narayanan’s goal with a 10th place finish at regionals. Individually, Benes took 11th in conference to just miss out on first-team honors, while Brandy both made the CCIW first team and achieved All Region status and a trip to the NCAA Division III Women’s Cross Country National Championship. The team also won an 18th consecutive USTFCCCA All-Academic Team award, with Brandy and Benes both being named individual Academic All-Americans.

“I think I really did not know what to expect at all from this season, mostly because my freshman year we had COVID, so we didn’t really compete,” said Brandy.0″ And last year I was injured, so I hadn’t competed in cross country since my senior year of high school. So I was just kind of like, alright, we’re going to make it through the season. We’re going to see what happens. And then I think once I started racing, I realized that I could actually do better than I thought I did. I never really thought about having, like, the pressure of being the number one runner or anything like that. But I realized, oh, I can probably be all-conference. And then I kind of adjusted my goals as the season went on. But it was definitely a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t really know what I was expecting.

“Last year, everything was like a first time for me, like my first college race, first conference race,” said Benes. “But I kind of had the hang of it now, so it made everything a little bit more easier. And I think improvements just came because I was more comfortable and kind of had a hang on everything. And also I think because I was a little bit more focused on not getting injured, it kind of carried me through the season. Like I didn’t end the season on a bad note and made me feel strong throughout.”

Self evaluation and plans for the future

Now halfway through their stated two-year process, the team feels they’re well positioned headed into their track and field seasons and to continue their upward trajectory next fall. Having seen their successes this year, they can now set loftier goals for both themselves and the team. They know what it’ll take, and they believe this group has it.

“I do know there’s a long term approach to this that we want to use this winter spring with our track and field seasons and be able to springboard into next year in 2023 where we want to come back to this meet not the same place and to be better and to have more people involved at a higher level,” Narayanan said. “And so at this point we’re developing a lot of experience. And I firmly believe that we as a program do not have the feeling of our tail between our legs and that we’re excited, which is good. So that’s I’m really happy, not satisfied, but I’m happy and content in the sense of where we got some good things there. So we’ve got good fertile ground to work with.”

“I think a big goal of ours is to win conference,” said Benes. “We were pretty close this year, but I think we definitely can do it. And for me at least, I definitely want to be on the first team. I was like one point away from it this year, so I think I can definitely make it happen next year. But yeah, I think we can definitely be up there, win conference and then also looking at regionals, we placed 10th this year. I think it’s just all about gaining experience and because we have that young team. I think next year we’re going to see so much more just growth throughout. So yeah, I think results will just come from that.”

“I think I’m going to actually like know what I’m doing this time really,” said Brandy with a laugh. “I definitely figured it all out like as I was going last time. So I’m going to try to make some more solid goals and be a little bit more deliberate in terms of how I approach this season and how I lead with the team. So yeah, just more planning.”