A winning culture


Kyle Heim/Iowa State Daily

Senior Perez Rotich runs for Iowa State at the Big 12 Championships on Nov. 1, 2014.

Kyle Heim

One of the first steps to a team winning a national championship is the team knowing it has the ability to do so.

After finishing second at the 2014 NCAA Cross-Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., the ISU women’s cross-country team knew the 2015 title wasn’t out of its reach.

The Cyclones were returning four of its top six runners from nationals, including their top scorer and the No. 7 overall finisher at the NCAA Championships, Crystal Nelson.

They were also the preseason No. 1 ranked team by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

But early in the season, things started taking a turn for the worse.

“It looks right now like we’ve kind of made that decision that we will not run Crystal this fall,” ISU coach Andrea Grove-McDonough announced in late September. “She had kind of a setback, unrelated to anything else that was going on. It turns out she has kind of a heart condition that we were unaware of, but we have since discovered.

“We’ve gone ahead and decided that she’s definitely out for this season.”

The team still appeared to be in a position to have successful season. After all, it was welcoming to the team a young Birmingham, England, cross-country runner who was fresh off winning the title at the 2015 Midland Cross Country Championships in Nottingham, England.

“As of right now, [Becky Straw’s] definitely our front-runner and our leader,” Grove-McDonough said about the newcomer on the team after deciding to redshirt Nelson. “She’s got a lot of experience in cross-country, so I don’t expect her to have any problems with the transition. For being a Brit, they have some pretty serious cross-country, so it’s pretty tough conditions. I don’t think there’s really a whole lot that that will faze her.”

But then her season was shut down before the Big 12 Championships, and Bethanie Brown, who was in All-American in 2013 and finished as the team’s third runner at the 2014 NCAA Championships, was unable to compete all season.

That left the team with only two runners from the 2014 ISU squad that placed runner-up at nationals.

Despite injuries and setbacks, the Cyclones recovered to place second at the Big 12 Championships and NCAA Midwest Regional. The season hadn’t gone according to plan, but the team’s reaction was about as impressive as its second-place finish at nationals the previous season.

The remaining roster consisted of two leaders in Perez Rotich and Erin Hooker, who finished first and second, respectively at the Big 12 Championships. The next three top runners on the team entered the season expecting to have nowhere near the kind of impact they had by the end of the season.

Andrea Toppin hadn’t competed during the entire 2014 cross-country season after suffering a stress fracture in her tibia and didn’t know if she would be able to compete in another cross-country meet. She finished as the team’s fifth runner at the Big 12 Championships and third runner at regionals.

“Coach said I was resurrected from the dead,” Toppin said. “I hadn’t raced in a cross-country meet previous to this season since 2013. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to race cross-country again.”

2015 marked Abby Caldwell’s first cross-country season at Iowa State. She finished 15th overall at the Big 12 Championships and 19th at regionals.

Evelyne Guay was just trying to use the season as a build-up for the indoor track season.

“We had so many talented girls on [the cross-country] team, and I thought I’d be maybe top 10 at the best,” Guay said. “We had a lot of girls injured, and it kind of forced me to step up and take a role I didn’t think I would have.”

She scored points for the Cyclones at both the Big 12 Championships and at regionals.

The season resulted in a top-25 performance at the 2015 NCAA Cross-Country Championships.

The ability to succeed even when everything seems to go wrong is an image Grove-McDonough established in her third year as the ISU women’s cross-country coach.

If everything goes right in 2016, and the Cyclones return their top runners they lost for the 2015 season to full strength, expectations and their potential will be just as high as they were entering last year.