Stripped of context, the unprecedented accomplishment reached by the University of Toledo women’s cross country program to advance to the NCAA meet in three consecutive seasons is impressive.
Consider the misfortunes that threatened to derail their path and the narrative becomes more remarkable.
Before the Rockets could line up today for the 31-team race in Louisville, they needed to counter a deluge of setbacks, beginning with the departure of two All-American runners and continuing with the loss of an assistant coach and a series of injuries and illnesses that wiped out several key contributors.
Considerable depth and a talented sophomore class buoyed a record-breaking campaign in which coach Kevin Hadsell has called on runners low on the preseason depth chart to fill in spaces. The Rockets rose to as high as No. 15 in the nation, secured a Mid-American Conference record with the lowest score at a league meet, and one-upped last year’s team that achieved MAC lore when it became the first team to qualify for nationals more than once.
"That’s what’s been so exciting about this season," said Liz Weiler, one of four sophomores expected to compete today. "We have so much depth and potential that’s been coming together. It’s really cool how many girls have been stepping up to fill those gaps."
Even though he lost seniors Ari Fisher and Emma Kertesz from last year’s team that finished 21st at nationals, Hadsell was confident this team would be better. Then a black cloud camped over the team.
Freshman Lindsey Burdette, a high school All-American from Jackson, Mich., was stricken with mononucleosis. The team’s top returning runner, Megan Vogelsong, slipped and fell outside of her house and sustained a high ankle sprain, forcing her to redshirt. Megan Gaysunas, who showed significant improvement this fall, injured her foot at practice.
Bad turned to worse. The team’s No. 1 runner, Mackenzie Chojnacky, suffered a dropoff in performance during recent weeks due to an iron deficiency. The sophomore, who twice was named MAC runner of the week, did not score at the MAC meet, or again last week when the Rockets finished fifth at the Great Lakes Regional.
Chojnacky, although still weak, is expected to race today, which cannot be said of Megan Wright, a two-time All-MAC performer who is hindered by a bad back.
To recap: Five injured runners, many of whom would be competing today if healthy.
"We’re one of the deepest teams in the nation," Hadsell said. "There are teams that are better than us that have less depth than us, but in terms of being in a position to where you lose that many kids in the course of the season and still make it to the NCAA meet and still be ranked, it says a lot about where we are."
Complicating the development of the team was the loss in early September of assistant coach Sara Vergote, who left to take a similar position at Iowa State. Fisher, an All-American for the Rockets in 2010, will fill the vacancy next month.
Prior to Chojnacky’s struggles and the injury to Wright, the Rockets seemed poised to reach their goal of finishing in the top 12 at nationals. Now, for a team that dropped to No. 27 in the latest poll, that will be a tall task.
"But we want to go as high as we can," said sophomore Priscilla Timmons, who has begun imagining possibilities for the next two seasons.
Sophomores Timmons, Weiler, Chojnacky, Wright, and Brooke Tullis, who is expected to compete today, have two more seasons of eligibility. Only one team member, MAC runner-up Kaylin Belair, a senior, will not be back.
"When they’re seniors, it’s going to be ridiculous," Belair said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.