Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald pulls away to win NCAA cross country title
Some things are worth the wait.
Just ask Morgan McDonald.
McDonald decided to redshirt his junior season at the University of Wisconsin so that he’d be able to compete in the NCAA cross country championships this season on the school’s home course, the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course at University Ridge.
That decision was rewarded Saturday as McDonald used a strong finishing kick to pull ahead of the pack in the last 400 meters and win the individual title.
McDonald completed the 10K course in 29:08.3, outracing Stanford’s Grant Fisher and Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat down the stretch. He became the fourth Badger to win the event and first since Simon Bairu got the second of his two consecutive titles in 2005.
It was the prospect of being able to do just that which motivated him to sit out last season.
“This was 100 percent the reason,” McDonald said. “This and we thought the team could be a bit better. It was all centered around this 2018 nationals held in Madison with a Badger crowd. It was all about that.
“As soon as we thought that we might be hosting nationals when I was a sophomore, maybe even a freshman, this is something that we knew down the line might be an option.”
McDonald, who placed seventh in the 2016 NCAA championship and was considered among the leading contenders going into this year’s race, was in the lead pack of about 12 runners. He felt he had plenty left for the stretch run but wanted to hold off as long as possible before he made his move.
“That last 400 meters was crazy,” McDonald said. “I knew that there were a lot of people around in that whole last 2K, which I didn’t really expect.
“With 400 to go, I knew that there were still so many bodies there and I was trying not to be the first one to make a move. I knew I had Grant there and Kurgat, so I was just trying to vibe off of them, see when they were going to make their moves and when the time was right, I kind of put my foot down and just prayed that it was enough to pull away and get the victory.”
It didn’t hurt his cause to have a huge crowd of noisy Badgers fans cheering him along.
“Down the homestretch and throughout the whole race I can’t even tell you how crazy it was,” McDonald said. “The whole race on either side was packed with Badger fans just yelling out my name and supporting the Badgers. It was really amazing. I felt it the whole way.”
The Badgers finished eighth in the team competition with 240 points. Northern Arizona won its third consecutive team title with 83 points, followed by BYU with 116.
“It’s not what we wanted but I’ll take a top 10 finish,” UW director of cross country and track and field Mick Byrne said. “There was very little separating four or five teams after NAU and BYU.”
In addition to benefiting from the emotional support of the crowd throughout the race, McDonald said it also helped to be so familiar with the course, even in the cold, snow-covered conditions.
“I think it just allowed me to be a bit more relaxed throughout the race,” he said. “I didn’t have to have that intensity of trying to think too much about where I was going to go because I knew it so well and I think that in the end that paid off when I had a bit more energy left.”
McDonald, a native of Sydney, Australia, said it was hard to put his accomplishment in perspective in regards to his legacy at UW. He joins Bairu, Tim Hacker (1985) and Walter Mehl (1939) on the list of national champions.
“I’m doing everything I can for this program to try and put my name up there,” he said. “Getting that individual title, not too many people have done that but I hope to still do a bit more through track season. Then when I’m done, we’ll see where the dust settles.”
UW junior Alicia Monson improved 135 spots from last year’s NCAA meet, but it wasn’t quite enough to carry her to the top of the women’s 6K race.
Monson ran with the lead group through the bulk of the race and finished fourth with a time of 19:55.2.
Colorado senior Dani Jones pulled away from the pack in the last kilometer to win in 19:42.8, outkicking New Mexico sophomore Weini Kelati, the race favorite, who finished second in 19:45.3.
Jones led an impressive team showing as Colorado placed all five scoring runners in the top 22, finishing with 65 points to beat out defending champion New Mexico, which was second with 103 points. It was the third team championship for Colorado and the first since 2004.
Jones, the Buffaloes’ second individual champion, figured it was a good omen when she awoke to see snow on the ground.
“Oh, I wanted there to be more snow than it was,” Jones said. “I have teammates who are from Montana, teammates from Colorado and I’m from Arizona, so I am not exactly in the same boat. But I have been training in Colorado for three years and we wanted the hardest conditions because we’ve practiced having calm minds all season.
“So, yeah, we woke up and it was like a Christmas morning and we went, ‘Woo-hoo, snow!’”
Kelati looked to have taken control of the race at around the 15-minute mark, but she faded and Jones blew past her down the stretch.
Monson, coming off victories in the Big Ten meet and the NCAA regional, kept pace with the leaders most of the way until first Kelati and then Jones separated themselves from the pack.
“I would’ve loved to have won the race but there was some great competition out there today,” Monson said. “Looking back on it I wish I would’ve gone when there was that pace drop at about 4 or 5K, but that’s a lot easier to say after the fact. I’m really proud of the way I finished coming up the home stretch.
“On any given day any of us in that top pack of 10 or so girls could’ve taken it, but Jones did a great job of staying patient and keeping it going later on.”
The Badgers finished 10th in the team competition with 325 points. Monson was the only UW runner to score in the top 50.
“I think she did a great job out there,” UW coach Jill Miller said. “I think she’s going to regret a little bit not sticking with that hard move but she came back really strong and never stopped fighting. Fourth place is a great day. I know a lot of people talked about her going after the title, but fourth is an amazing accomplishment.”