Just like the Missouri team two years ago, the women enter the Midwest Regional squarely on the bubble.
In 2017, a Karissa Schweizer-led women’s team finished fourth and was the last team left out of the field of 31 at the national championships.
A redshirt sophomore on the 2017 team, Jordyn Kleve doesn’t want to face the same fate in her final collegiate season.
“That was super tough,” Kleve said. “Definitely a piece of motivation right there.”
Even though this team is constructed a lot differently, with a group of six runners similar in skill rather than a couple frontrunners in Schweizer and Megan Cunningham , they are in a similar position heading into the postseason.
This time, Missouri has a chance to flip the script at the Midwest Regional in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Friday. The women run at 10:30 a.m. and the men run at 11:30 a.m.
Missouri needs a top-two finish in the region for an automatic bid to the national championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, but a third place finish from the women will likely get the job done because of at-large points the team earned at the Nuttycombe Invitational in October.
A fourth-place finish, like in 2017, will leave the Tigers with a stressful night squarely on the bubble.
“We’d really be crossing our fingers,” coach Marc Burns said.
The Tigers are ranked fifth in the region behind Illinois, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Tulsa, but Missouri isn’t far behind any of those teams. Illinois is the highest-ranked of the bunch at 22, and No. 25 Oklahoma State is the only other team inside the Top 25.
“What’s nice about our region is in the top-five teams there really isn’t anybody who is automatic,” Burns said. “But everyone has its own set of weaknesses so anything can happen this weekend.”
Missouri’s 20th place finish at Nuttycombe was just behind Tulsa (18) and Minnesota (16), so Missouri’s most likely path is leapfrogging those two teams and securing a top-three finish.
A smaller field should favor the Tigers, who have a lot of depth without a true No. 1 runner.
“It’s a big meet but you get more of a benefit at a bigger meet like Nuttycombe when you have low sticks,” Burns said. “If your four-five are in the 60s and 70s that can be offset by another team having their top five in the top 30.”
Burns said Missouri will need a top runner in the top-15 and that’s likely to be Sarah Chapman, who has a small chance of qualifying individually as one of the top-four finishers on teams that didn’t qualify.
“She would need to probably be in the top seven or eight,” Burns said. “That would be a big run for her but she is certainly capable of it. She would need to run better than she ran at the SEC meet but I think she will and bounce back.”
On the men’s side, the loss of Kieran Wood to a stress fracture took away any sliver of hope the team had of making it to Terre Haute, but Thomas George is in the mix for an individual berth.
George bounced back from a poor performance in the Nuttycombe Invitational at the conference championships with an eighth place finish and a time of 23 minutes and 14 seconds in the 8K that was over a minute faster than his time at Nuttycombe.
“He’s in a great place right now,” Burns said. “He’s one of five or six guys who have a shot at making the top four so he is going to lay low early, move up in the second half of the race and get ready to battle.”
George leads a young team that is focused for the future with sophomores and a redshirt freshman filling out the rest of the top-five.
Sophomore Marquette Wilhite had a breakthrough performance at the SEC Championships with a 29th place finish at the conference championships and leads a young core of second-year runners that includes Martin Prodanov, Victor Mugeche and Oaklee Hauschild.
“(Marquette) has been climbing up the ranks all year and it hadn’t really shown up in a race yet,” Burns said, “In workouts he’s been leading that group about a month ago in practice and we were saying, ‘Oh my gosh Marquette is really coming on.’ I anticipate him having a good weekend.”
The goal for that group of four is to secure a top-10 finish for Missouri to improve on a 13th place finish in last year’s regional.
“Our goal is to have a single digit next to our name,” Burns said. “Then we want to be top-five next year. We aren’t totally where we want to be right now but we just want to see progress. Where we need to be this year is in the top-10 somewhere.”