Penn cross country qualifying for Nationals didn’t play out in the way you’d expect.
The women, having just placed third as a team at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship meet, spent the first half of the ride back to campus with their collective breath held. Nick Tuck, the top finisher on the men’s side, waited in anticipation as well. Nothing was guaranteed; the looming presence of the season’s end was palpable.
Then the news broke. They had made it. The Penn women’s cross country team was going to Nationals, and so was Tuck.
31 teams make it to the NCAA D-I Championships every year. After the first few runners cross the line at the nine regional meets across the country, 18 of those team spots are immediately filled: finishing first or second gets you in, no questions asked.
That leaves 13 openings, and countless runners waiting anxiously across the country.
Enter the “at-large” bid process. It’s how the NCAA fills up the entry list, and it’s somewhat analogous to choosing NFL Wild Card teams. To determine who gets a bid, the NCAA considers wins from the regular season. The primary criterion, though, is regional finish.
“We knew that we were in third and there was a chance that we would get an at large bid,” said senior Ashley Montgomery. “We kind of were all holding out hope, but a little hesitant to get too excited yet. When we were driving back, and found out, obviously we were just so pumped. It was such great news.”
This wasn’t the first time Ashley got this sort of news, though. She made it to NCAA’s last year too, only then she didn’t have her team by her side.
“One of the biggest things last year when I was standing on the line at the start and even when I was warming up, was that you all of a sudden just realize the team aspect that you take for granted sometimes,” she said.
Now that the entire team will be able to compete, Ashley is excited to share the experience with all of the runners to whom she has grown so close, including the team’s newest members.
“That’s such an awesome experience for them to have and such a great setup for what’s to come,” Montgomery said. “Just having them realize the things that are possible for them from the get-go I think just really sets a good tone for the team in the future.”
Nick Tuck’s story was a bit different: he was understandably less jubilant than the women’s team when he found out he had qualified.
“At first, there was definitely some mutual disappointment that we won’t be going all together, it’s definitely been bittersweet for me knowing that I get to go but without them,” Tuck said.
Regardless of Friday’s outcome, however, Nick knows that his team is behind him all the way.
“They’ve been really supportive, and most of the guys are even driving out to come watch me run. That’s something I’m really looking forward to, and having them there is important to me.”
He clinched a spot in Nationals by the skin of his teeth: the NCAA selects only two individuals from the national pool that were not top-four finishers in their region nor members of teams that had already qualified. Nick Tuck was one of them.
Tuck has the potential to do very well this Saturday, and after finishing in the 70’s at Nationals last year, he has his sights set on the coveted All-American status, which comes with a top-40 finish.
Coach Steve Dolan, for one, has faith that he can succeed if he stays in control.
“He’s a real good competitor, so I think he’ll turn it on,” Dolan said. He says he’s been telling Nick that he needs to “make sure that he runs a smart race so he gives himself a chance to run great.”
As far as the runners’ attitudes going into the race, Montgomery put it best when she described what she will be saying to her teammates on the line.
“The biggest thing is remembering at this point the work is done. We’ve put so much hard work into this season to have this moment. Really, really try to enjoy the experience, and enjoy working hard because this is it. This is what we’ve worked for.”
The gun goes off this Saturday at noon at LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Indiana.