The Toledo Inter-Regional Bubble Buster was held yesterday evening at Toledo’s Ottawa Park Golf Course.
Through 4 km of this 4 mile race, it was still four Syracuse runners and Eastern Michigan’s Terefe Ejigu, as it had been for most of the race.
Coming into the final 300 yards or so, it was still a group of five at the front, and only just before this final hill did Ejigu overtake the lead.
If you go by rankings, this was the deepest and most competitive women’s collegiate race of the weekend. Four top twenty-five teams were in attendance: #18 Toledo, #22 Syracuse, #23 San Francisco, and #25 West Virginia. Twelve of the fourteen teams were ranked in the top ten in their region. Among the individuals, two of last year’s NCAA Championships top 40 runners (and indoor track championships qualifiers) were running.
As it turned out, the prognostications and rankings had little bearing on what actually happened. Butler came away with two upset wins, with the team scoring a clear victory and junior Katie Clark running 15 seconds clear of the field. San Francisco took second, followed by Columbia, Toledo, Syracuse, and BYU.
How did Butler, ranked just seventh in the Great Lakes region, claim a clear victory over such a quality field? Obviously, they’re far better than that ranking, and few observers realized what kind of team they have.
Individual winner Katie Clark is a prime example. She sat out most of last year, redshirting cross country and outdoor track, but her indoor season was pretty good, with best marks of 9:22.17 and 16:21.21 and a 3k/5k double victory at the Horizon League indoor championships. She was clearly itching to race, took the lead early, and never looked back.
Another issue was that the 4 km short-course format helped the Bulldogs. For example, #2 runner Kirsty Legg is an 800/1500 specialist during track season, and was 17th at the NCAA Championships 1500 meters in 2011. And like Clark, she redshirted last year’s cross country season and was flying under the radar. Also escaping notice until now was #4 runner Olivia Pratt, a freshman who was a good runner in high school but who looks to have stepped things up a level.
San Francisco’s second place finish may have been even more remarkable, as coach Helen Lehman-Winters held out the team’s top two runners–one of whom, Laura Suur, is the 15th-best runner returning from last year’s NCAA Championships. Columbia looks to be a better team than had been expected, and Toledo coach Kevin Hadsell thought his team did well to finish fourth. No one would be surprised if six or seven of these teams ended up qualifying to the NCAA Championships.
Cross country has barriers to becoming a really big spectator sport, but this meet did well. Hadsell wants to get the Toledo running community out to see the meet and keeps it on a Friday in order to allow high school athletes to come and watch. Last year’s meet was the inaugural one and had little to no fan support, but you can see on some of the videos I shot for Flotrack that the turnout for this year’s meet was pretty good. I have some suggestions I’ll make to Hadsell and others involved in putting on the meet to help increase turnout next year and make for a better fan experience, but those would only be putting icing on an already well-made cake.
One big advantage for this meet is what Hadsell is always talking about: the course and the park. It’s conveniently located only just across the street from the University. The course layout is very fan-friendly. From an athlete’s perspective, it’s fast and the footing is firm and that makes it a heck of a lot of fun. Late September is about as good of weather as you’re going to get in Toledo. And I got independent corroboration of what Hadsell says from other coaches, which is that it needs only minor improvements to host an NCAA Championships.
Next year’s Bubble Buster will be even better. It’s entirely possible that we’ll be doing it live on Flotrack.