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Craig Pearson | | November 21, 2014

Eyes on the prize

  Leah O'Connor
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Michigan State was thought of as the second best women’s cross country team in the state of Michigan prior to winning the Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 17.

Combined with then top-ranked Michigan’s third-place finish in the Pre-Nationals, the Spartans became the team to beat the remainder of the cross country calendar.

No. 2 Georgetown, led by Big East and Mid-Atlantic Region champion Katherine Coogan, heads into Terre Haute as a major contender as well. The Hoyas other impressive win was the Pre-Nationals, where they edged No. 3 Oregon. The Ducks, coming off a dominant win in the NCAA West Regional -- and getting Waverly Neer, their No. 2 runner from Pac-12s back in the fold -- could certainly be a factor in Saturday’s outcome. No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Arkansas will also be dangerous.

But Michigan State has proven throughout the season they are the team to beat. In addition to the Wisconsin win, the Spartans have also won the Roy Griak Invitational and won the Big Ten Championship with 26 points, the third-lowest score in Big Ten history.

The Spartans are determined to win the program’s first women’s cross country national championship.

“I don't think [the Wisconsin win] did any more or less for our confidence,” coach Walt Drenth said. “We just went into it to find out how well we could do. It certainly gave the kids the feeling they were competitive. It didn't give them the sense they were defined there.”

Senior Leah O’Connor, the Big Ten and Great Lakes Region champion, and sophomore Rachele Schulist give the Spartans an elite 1-2 punch heading into Saturday’s race.

“Leah's made her way up there. It's taken her a while to get in sync this fall. We're just going to run as well as we can,” Drenth said.

Schulist has been runner-up to O’Connor three times this season.

Such a finish would be unlikely Saturday as Iona’s Kate Avery finished third last season after leading the first four kilometers of the 6K race.

Shelby Houlihan of Arizona State, Crystal Nelson of Iowa State and the 2013 runner-up Emma Bates are among the other top contenders.

Bates leads Boise State into the program’s first NCAA event after edging Stanford for the second automatic bid in the West.

“To have [my teammates] with me this year is a dream come true,” Bates said. “The atmosphere of this week has been so electric and I am gaining so much energy and excitement from them. I am running this weekend for something bigger than myself.”

Bates is coming off a runner-up finish in the West Regional, finishing three seconds behind Houlihan.

Cool temperatures and rain in the forecast could provide similar conditions as a year ago.

“I would love for the conditions to be similar to last year. I feel that last year became a gutsy race, it was all about who wanted it more -- no tactics involved, just straight running as hard as you can until the finish line,” Bates said.

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