ND came into the regional fifth-ranked. Having beaten at least a dozen NCAA-bound teams in mid-October at Wisconsin’s Nuttycombe and several at the ACC meet two weeks ago, it would be difficult to see ND not advancing.
However, the Great Lakes region is loaded. One of nine regions, it claimed four of 13 at-large bids. In addition to the three B1G at-large qualifiers Dillon cites, Toledo also earned a bid. I do not believe ND could have sat two or three runners and been confident of qualifying automatically or necessarily even beating each of the at-large qualifiers. Emphasis on confident: possible but not confident. While ND won the region by an astounding 78 points, the next five teams — all of whom are now NCAA-bound — spanned a 21-point range.
While ND’s sixth runner (not part of the posted score) finished 18th, the seventh runner finished 55th. Only seven runners compete in the region, but resting three would have pulled in the eighth, ninth and tenth runners from the roster fairly quickly. How deep is the roster? I don’t know. The tail in scoring can be a very long tail, as you’re probably aware. What’s the impact if one runner sustains an injury during the race? I believe, but am not certain, that finishing lower than sixth could have jeopardized ND’s bid.
So then the question becomes could they have run a more tactical race. I attended the Midwest region that Mizzou hosted. Third-ranked Oklahoma State was the overwhelming favorite against several B1G schools, Iowa State and Bradley. I believe they rested Billah Jepkirui, arguably their best runner, but perhaps she had a niggle. Out on the course, it looked as if the OK State coaches were encouraging a tactical race and pacing, even restraining, their runners. At the 4 km mark, they were in sixth as a team and then finished strongly. They won the region by 30 points over Northwestern. It’s doubtful they burned the degree of energy that the ND runners did. Is that the right thing to do? Not really sure. Perhaps to some degree it comes down to the individual athletes and the wear-and-tear of the season.
For all the teams, there will be a big emphasis on recovery, as the eight-day turnaround is tight, and the championship course (incidentally OK State’s) is demanding.
As another data point, the Wake men came into the Southeast region with a similar national ranking as the ND women. They did rest some runners and finished third behind UNC and UVa, both of which they had walloped at the ACC. Advancement was the priority, they’re headed to Stillwater, and it will be interesting to see whether having better-rested top runners pays dividends on Saturday.
(edited to reflect that Wake is in the Southeast region, not the South Central, which might more accurately be called the Southwest. Mea culpa ….)