The time has come for the Maroons to prove they belong on the national stage. This weekend in Rock Island, IL, the men’s and women’s seasons will either lead to national berths or early exits.
The women of Chicago have had a strong season, claiming the UAA championship two weeks ago while holding a top-10 ranking nationally throughout most of the season. It comes as no surprise that they hold the top ranking in the Midwest region and a likely bid to the national race. The men find themselves in a less clear-cut situation.
Chicago’s men have held a national ranking all year, and defeated numerous other ranked teams en route to a very impressive overall season. However, they currently hold the sixth spot in the highly competitive Midwest region, and this is why the men find themselves in a tough spot.
The NCAA Championship consists of 32 teams racing for the national title. The top two teams from each regional race automatically qualify for the tournament. After those teams, the NCAA selection committee grants at-large bids to teams deserving of a chance at Nationals. In the past, the Midwest region received three at-large bids as the NCAA capped the region to five qualifiers. However, this season the NCAA removed the cap rule for all regions, meaning that the Midwest can send more than five qualifiers. Despite the new rule, the NCAA selection committee does not want to flood the championship with Midwestern teams, and thus, the sixth-place team in the region could get snubbed.
While none of this will likely affect the women’s team, the men’s team will have to prove its worth to the NCAA selection committee. If the men finish fifth, they will likely go to Nationals; if they take sixth, they will not control their own fate.
“I think the team is confident that we belong at the national meet,” first-year Gareth Jones said. “We have been doing the right things all season long, and regionals is just one more thing we have to do right.”
Currently, three of the top-five and four of the top-10 teams in the nation come from the Midwest. The fifth-ranked team in Midwest region, UW–Oshkosh currently ranks 11th. The men will certainly have their work cut out for them if they plan on breaking into that top five. In addition, UW–Stout, seventh in the region and 25th in the country, will be gunning for Chicago and a national bid of its own.
Of the 16 at-large bids, the Maroons currently rank seventh, behind MIT. If the Maroons run a strong race and keep themselves competitive, the selection committee will have a tough time keeping them home from the big dance.
Realistically, the women should take first in the region, ahead of regional No. 2 Wash U, whom they have defeated on numerous occasions this year. The men will likely take sixth but have an honest shot at fifth with a bit of luck.
“Our biggest strength is the trust we have in one another,” Jones said. “If I or any other teammate has a bad day, we can count on the rest of the team to run great regardless. That sort of trust allows us to run with nothing holding us back. When we toe the line on Saturday, the only thing we will be thinking about is how each one of us is part of a team. And that team needs each of us to give everything we have out there on the course. And because that is the way we think, I am sure that regardless of what happens, it was our best effort.”
This type of team mentality that Jones refers to, along with great running, will be the reason both squads make the NCAA Championship. As head coach Chris Hall has said all year long, “The hay is in the barn.”
The races begin in Rock Island, IL at 11 a.m.