It’s all but impossible for University of Wisconsin women’s cross country runners to be uninformed on the program’s history.
It’s there in big letters and numbers on a wall outside their locker room: two NCAA title teams, three individual champions, 11 Big Ten Conference meet winners and more.
Even if that doesn’t sink in, they get occasional messages and visits from stars of the past who share the stories of the time three decades ago when the program dominated women’s cross country.
The Badgers haven’t reached the top of the sport as a team since 1985 and haven’t had a NCAA individual champion since 1999. In 2009, they slipped to 10th place in the Big Ten and didn’t qualify for the national championship for what would be the first of four times in a seven-year span.
The competition, especially in the Big Ten, has become sharper. The Badgers have had to keep up, and they’re showing signs of a resurgence as they host the season’s biggest meet.
Coach Jill Miller likes to talk about the incremental steps toward an end goal, and the Badgers have made some in advance of today’s NCAA cross country championships at Zimmer Championship Course.
“We go in ranked much higher than we were last year,” Miller said. “We’re a better team. We’re well-rounded. And I like that baby step of improvement that I see happening now as we’re filling in with different recruiting classes and even throughout the years.”
The highlight for the 10th-ranked Badgers this season has been Alicia Monson, a junior who has launched herself into contention for the championship with a season that has produced results unlike either of her first two.
Monson had finishes of 30th and 22nd at the Big Ten meet in her first two seasons. She followed that up with regional places of 11th and 31st.
This season, she won both the conference and regional races, elevating her to third in the national rankings by FloTrack. It also has put her in the conversation about joining Cathy Branta (1984), Kathy Butler (1995) and Erica Palmer (1999) among UW’s individual national champions.
Monson is the individual example of what the team has done in taking steps back toward the top of the game.
“It’s almost a little bit intimidating that I’ve made such big improvements,” Monson said. “But to me it’s more gratification of knowing that I’ve been doing things all along that have gotten me to this point. It’s definitely a confidence booster going into the weekend, but it’s not something to hold over myself and have responsibility for it.”
With difficulties managing her iron level last season, Monson finished 139th at the national meet. A year later, she takes to UW’s home course today as one of the runners who’ll be watched intently by other competitors.
Miller, who was named head coach of the women’s team this season after four years as an assistant, said Monson doesn’t walk around the team’s training facilities as much as she bounces around them.
“She has so much energy,” Miller said. “Her recovery is at such a high level that we found that sweet spot to make everything click.”
Badgers director of cross country and track and field Mick Byrne saw that energy on display in last Friday’s regional meet in Terre Haute, Indiana. Late in the race, he tried to get Monson to slow down to save something for the national championship race eight days later.
She stopped, gave Byrne a palms-up, what-do-you-want-from-me gesture, resumed running and pulled away from Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer in the final stretch to win.
“The goal of the race was to conserve and to make sure to save some for the (national) race,” Monson said this week. “And, obviously, the coaches always have my best interest and the team’s best interest in mind. So it was like knowing the difference between what are the coaches telling me and what is my body telling me?
“I felt fine. I think just as long as Anna and I were keeping it controlled, I don’t think we went to a crazy effort level.”
Monson, an Amery native who hopes to work in sports nutrition after college, has worked with UW director of performance nutrition Nick Aures on maximizing recovery. Small changes make sustainable differences over a longer period compared to quick fixes that don’t last, she said.
The same could be said for a team that’s trying to pull its way back up to the top group nationally.
Miller wasn’t happy with a third-place finish at this year’s Big Ten meet. Still, she said she sees “very healthy steps forward” by the Badgers.
“I like the progression,” Miller said. “I think we’re in a great spot right now, and the future is very bright with our young kids.”
It’s a future that has been influenced by the past. Monson said former Badgers runner Stephanie Herbst Lucke, UW’s top individual finisher on the 1985 NCAA championship team, has come back to speak to the team about the program’s legacy.
This week, she texted the team to say 176 alumni were planning on being at today’s race.
When Herbst Lucke talks to current runners, she emphasizes that a strong mental approach to the sport is vital. But she also pounds home a message of duty to continue living up to what those before them accomplished with the team.
“When you put on that red uniform, you’re representing not only yourself but your team, your coaching staff. And you’re representing every single one of us,” Herbst Lucke said. “So if you’re not willing to give it your all, don’t even put it on. Because it’s not respectful for the legacy that the rest of us have been a part of and that we willingly ask you to join.”
The alumni are having a get-together on the eve of the race and will line the course today with rally flags.
Their presence brings a lot to live up to, but Monson sounds ready to give it a shot.
“I think it’s really important for our team to be striving to get back to that point where Wisconsin is almost like a team to be feared,” Monson said. “They’re always winning and they’re always ready to go.
“Seeing the team improve and coming back to that point has been amazing, just to see the way Jill has improved the program over the years that I’ve been here. And we’re really excited to show that at our home course.”