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The University of Toledo women's cross country team has one ultimate goal this season – to qualify for the NCAA championships.
To use an old running term, the Rockets are right on pace.
UT finished ninth at the annual pre-nationals meet last weekend in Terra Haute, Ind., running against some of the top programs in the country on the same course where the NCAA championship will be decided next month.
“That was the best performance that we've ever had there in school history, and actually it's the best a MAC school has ever done,” UT cross country coach Kevin Hadsell said. “At the halfway point, we were actually fifth so we were really right in the thick of things. We faded a little bit in the second half, which is to be expected, but I can see with another month of training that we'll be able to hang on a lot better should we get the chance to go to the NCAAs.”
Only 31 teams qualify for the NCAA championships, and the Rockets are currently ranked 32nd in the nation and third in the Great Lakes region. They are the highest rated MAC school and are ahead of teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame.
“The girls are really excited and confident,” Hadsell said. “They know that they're fit and that they're better than they've ever been. It's a great feeling for them, but they're still hungry for more.”
Leading the way for the Rockets is junior Ari Fisher, who finished 13th at pre-nationals after leading most of the race.
“Ari is on a different level than anybody we've ever had,” Hadsell said. “We've had four different women ranked in the top 25 in the world since 2000, and she is better than all of them. She's incredibly good.
“She's at the point now where she is a legitimate contender to win the NCAA championship and be the top runner in the country.”
No UT or MAC cross country runner has ever won an individual NCAA title.
“There's been a few workouts where she's actually worked out with our men,” Hadsell said. “She's just that much better than everybody else.”
WOMEN'S SOCCER: The UT women's soccer team can all but lock up its second MAC regular season title in the last three seasons with a pair of victories this weekend.
The Rockets (12-2-2, 8-0-0 MAC) host fellow West Division front-runner Central Michigan on Friday at 4 p.m. at Scott Park, then take on Eastern Michigan, which is also undefeated in conference play, at home 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Chippewas are the reigning MAC champions. Prior to last season, UT had won three straight conference titles.
“There's a championship mentality around our program,” UT coach Brad Evans said. “We expect to compete for championships. You never know what the outcome will be, but you know how we're going to represent ourselves.”
The Rockets enter Friday's contest with a nine-match winning streak and possess the 18th-best overall winning percentage in the country.
“We've done it with a team-first approach,” Evans said. “We certainly don't have a notable superstar that the team revolves around. Different players are capable of stepping up at different times.”
Evans credited his six seniors with guiding the Rockets and helping the team take a renewed approach after being eliminated by Central Michigan 4-2 on penalty kicks in the semifinals of the MAC tournament last season.
“Ever since we got on the bus at Central, it was like, we're ready for next year right now,” said senior Brittany Hensler, who leads the Rockets with 15 points (7 goals, 1 assist) this season. “We started preparing that day. It's been on our minds since that day, and we're ready for revenge.”
THINK PINK: The women's soccer game Friday will help benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure of Northwest Ohio.
The Rockets will wear pink jerseys, which will be auctioned off after the match to benefit breast cancer research.
Cancer survivors will be admitted free, and the first 100 fans at Scott Park will receive T-shirts.
Contact Zach Silka: email@example.com or 419-724-6084.