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MSU cross-country team revels in national championship

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Walt Drenth won a national championship Saturday.

So, how'd he celebrate Sunday?

"Yard work."

Now that's staying grounded.

Drenth's Michigan State women's cross-country team celebrated the program's first national championship Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind. It was the school's first team national championship of any kind since 2007, when the men's hockey team accomplished the feat. The last Michigan State women's team to do it was softball, winning the old Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women title in 1976.

Led by an incredibly deep roster, four Spartans finished in the top 21 of the final race, led by sophomore Rachele Schulist, who finished fourth. Their top five finishers combined for a score of 85, well clear of second-place Iowa State — and the best score by a women's cross-country national champion since Washington posted a 79 in 2008.

"What I saw yesterday was really what we saw all year out of our team," said Drenth, the men's and women's cross-country and track coach since 2006. "Great camaraderie, and that's important in a race where one person or another is going to struggle. Not everybody has the perfect race."

Of course, Michigan State came darn close Saturday.

While Schulist was fourth overall at 19 minutes, 54.30 seconds, redshirt sophomore Lindsay Clark was 11th at 20:16. The Spartans' third-place finisher was Leah O'Connor, a reshirt senior who was the Big Ten champion and athlete of the year. She checked in at 20:20.80, good for 17th, followed by redshirt seniors Julia Otwell (20:29.50) and Sara Kroll (20:56.70) in 21st and 61st place, respectively.

Iowa State was the only other team to have even two runners in the top 21.

"One thing that helped us this season," said Clark, "we all kind of improved. That's the biggest thing. Our growth throughout the whole team. It wasn't like just one person was getting better.

"The whole team was getting better."

And the end result was spectacular.

Though, frankly, not much of a surprise — at least not for Drenth.

He had visions of this as far back as last Nov. 23, when, in Terre Haute, Ind., after cooldowns and the awards reception, he gathered his runners in his tent and told them: "Next year's gonna be really special. There's no reason we can't start thinking about being national champs."

Clark recalls the runners being a bit stunned by that, and a bit skeptical. But they quickly came around. After all, the Spartans had just finished sixth in the nation, and they knew they were getting Otwell and Kroll back from red-shirts.

"Our coaches bought had a vision," Schulist said. "We all bought into the idea that we could be great. We put all the work in and we executed. And it was awesome."

So was the ride back from Terre Haute on Saturday.

While the Spartans didn't cop to amazingly epic celebrations, they did acknowledge they rocked out to Taylor Swift and enjoyed some hearty snacks on the bus. And when they pulled onto campus, around 9:30 at night, there was a group of fans to greet them, signs in tow.

Pretty soon, the university as a whole will pay tribute, perhaps as early as Monday during halftime of the men's basketball game at Breslin Center. If not tonight, then soon, and certainly before students go on break. Athletic director Mark Hollis wants a full house to honor the team. The team national championship is the first in Hollis' tenure as athletic director.

"National championships are achievements that should be celebrated, and we will," Hollis told The News on Sunday. "It has been a great honor to watch this team build over the past several years."

Hollis sent his congratulations to Drenth on Saturday, as did university president Lou Anna K. Simon, among several other Michigan State dignitaries.

It was all a bit peculiar for Drenth, who's never before been in this position — and, therefore, didn't really know how to celebrate the achievement.

But he'll do his best.

"I don't live very well in the present. We'll see how it goes," Drenth said, laughing. "It's hard to figure out. Having not sat here before, a couple friends of mine who've had success said it'll take a while to sink in."

In the meantime, yard work.


Here's a look at Michigan State's team national championships over the last 50 years:

■Football, 1965

■Football, 1966

■Men's hockey, 1966

■Men's soccer, 1967

■Wrestling, 1967

■Men's soccer, 1968

■Softball, 1976*

■Men's basketball, 1979

■Men's hockey, 1986

■Men's basketball, 2000

■Men's hockey, 2007

■Women's cross country, 2014

* Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship