For the first time since 2004, the Wichita State women’s cross country team goes to the Missouri Valley Conference without a title to defend.
A year ago, Illinois State ended WSU’s run of six consecutive women’s championships. Kaitlyn McLeod remembers a long bus ride home and a lot of disappointment. The Shockers placed three runners in the top six, including champion Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton, yet lost by 10 points to Illinois State.
“Ever since last year we’ve been preparing for this meet,” McLeod said. “We wanted to come back this year and right that wrong.”
The Shockers will try to regain that title on Saturday in Normal, Ill., on the home course of the defending champions. WSU is picked second in the MVC coaches poll with 86 points, behind Illinois State’s 96. In the men’s poll, WSU is picked third behind defending champion Indiana State and Southern Illinois.
Tuliamuk-Bolton is a heavy favorite to repeat as champion. She owns the MVC’s best times in the 4-, 5- and 6-kilometer races this fall. Her 5K time of 17 minutes, 1.77 seconds is more than 20 seconds ahead of Illinois State’s Rachael Brewer’s best (17:22). McLeod wants to join Tuliamuk-Bolton near the front and is setting a top-five finish as her goal.
“My team needs me to be up there,” she said.
McLeod, a sophomore from Peculiar, Mo., finished 58th in the MVC meet last year with a time of 19:54. Her best 5K time this season is 18:21.46.
That is a big jump, but one she feels is realistic. She wasn’t satisfied with a solid freshman year. She competed in the MVC cross country, indoor and outdoor track meets, but failed to place.
“I was really kind of hurt, because I wanted to be able to score the points and help the team,” she said.
While Tuliamuk-Bolton returned, WSU lost two other top runners. McLeod wanted to replace their points.
“She did what she had to this summer,” WSU coach Kirk Hunter said. “I challenged the women’s team a great deal. Everyone from that team, that was still here, had to step up. That meant they had to train well that summer and do everything correctly.”
With McLeod, Samantha Shukla and Elida Bailon running well, Hunter likes WSU’s chances of pushing Illinois State.
“As long as they’re running in that normal range, right there, we’re going to be in the hunt,” Hunter said. “We obviously need a fifth person in there.”
WSU’s men face tougher odds to win an MVC title for the first time since 1987. Indiana State has won three in a row and five of the past seven. Shocker sophomore Sterling Spencer ranks eighth in the MVC with an 8K time of 24:37.80.