Cross country

Monson leads Wisconsin women into national championships with eyes on individual title

After finishing just 139th at nationals last year while hampered by low iron levels, junior Alicia Monson is a top contender for the individual title on her home course in 2018.

After finishing just 139th at nationals last year while hampered by low iron levels, junior Alicia Monson is a top contender for the individual title on her home course in 2018.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger and Cameron Lane-Flehinger

A year ago, Alicia Monson struggled to a 139th-place finish at the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships. It was a result that didn’t match up with what her training or her race results had suggested she was capable of, due largely to low iron levels that had sapped her ability to reach her peak performance.

Twelve months later, Monson has solved her iron deficiency and taken her training to another level; together those improvements have taken her from fringe All-American to national dominance.

”It’s just been baby steps, every single season,” women’s cross country coach Jill Miller said. “That was my challenge to her, how can we in a healthy way make another leap forward. And she’s really dialed in on the recovery side of the sport, allowing the intensity of her training to go up, but her energy is just so much higher than it’s ever been.”

Monson announced her entry into the national title picture with a bang at September’s Nuttycombe Invitational, held on the Badgers’ Zimmer Championship Course, the same course she’ll be running at on Saturday.

At Nuttycombe, Monson bided her time and unleashed a kick in the final 500 meters to beat defending champion Ednah Kurgat and national championship favorite Weini Kelati.

As soon as the dust had settled on the race, the questions began. Could Monson become the first runner to capture a national title on her home course since Amy Skieresz of Arizona in 1996?

Seven weeks later, Monson has done nothing to dispel that notion. She’s picked up commanding wins at the Big Ten championships and the Great Lakes regional, and even though most national outlets have tabbed Kelati as the favorite on Saturday, Monson’s ceiling is unknown.

The Amery, Wisconsin native’s breakthrough has elevated not just her own prospects but those of the whole team. The Badgers took 10th at this meet a year ago despite Monson’s disappointing performance and graduated just one senior from their top seven.

Senior Shaelyn Sorenson and junior Amy Davis are Wisconsin’s top two returners from last year’s nationals, and if they can replicate their performances from a season ago, the Badgers will score approximately 80 points from their top three runners.

If they can do that, it will likely take top-100 finishes from junior Alissa Niggeman and freshman Lucinda Crouch, runs both women have shown are within their capabilities, to improve on last year’s score.

In her first year as head coach, Miller’s squad has run with a relaxed and fun attitude — Niggeman showed up to Thursday’s pre-nationals banquet wearing a light-up tiara — that’s kept the pressure off Monson’s shoulders and could help the Badgers exceed expectations on Saturday.

“They support [Monson], they love her, they make sure she feels calm and confident going into races and has zero extra pressure on her shoulders,” Miller said. “If you saw this team on the road, even pre-meeting it’s a really fun experience.”

Wisconsin will be at home, not on the road, for Saturday’s championships. But if the Badgers can capture the energy of the Madison crowd during the race, it could lead to another top-10 performance that would go a long ways toward the luster of a once-dominant program.

“It’s certainly a very special week here in Madison,” Miller said. “Our athletes are very excited; they can’t wait to get out there on Saturday.”

Of course, any result the Badgers come away with on Saturday will start, literally and emotionally, with Alicia Monson.

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