Women’s cross country team has best finish in seven years at MAC Championships

Baidy Ba hold his MAC Freshman of the Year trophy after finishing as the highest first-year runner during the MAC Championships on Saturday Oct. 30 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

“Best meet of the year.”

That’s how Kent State cross country coach James Croft described his team’s performance at the Mid-American Conference Championships hosted by Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

“They did a fantastic job of just tweaking and getting ready for the biggest meet of the year,” Croft said. “They just showed up on the day.” 

The women’s team had its best finish at the championship since 2014, placing eighth out of 12 teams in the 6K. They ended with a score of 220. 

“The game plan going in was for our third, fourth and fifth girl to stay as tight and close to each other as possible,” Croft said. “We knew that was going to be the key for us to improve upon last year’s team place.”

“We knew our top two girls could go out and do what they needed to do. We had faith in them. [Graduate student Stephanie Ward and senior Leah Lisle] actually didn’t have their best days. But our three, four and five runners did stick to the plan and ran close to each other. So that’s what did it for us.”

Ward was the team’s best runner, finishing 15th out of 99 runners with a time of 21:34.0. She just barely missed out on All-MAC honors and had the best finish by a Flash since 2015. 

Croft said that Ward is “relentless.”

“She’s a super feisty competitor,” Croft said. “She hates to lose and hates to underperform. The first mile kind of shocked her, and she was further back than she expected. She looked like she was in 40th at the first half mile, so she really moved up into 3K and at the end as well.” 

Ward has finished as the top runner for the Flashes in all three meets she’s participated in this season since transferring from the University of Oregon in the offseason. 

“It hurt to be one spot out of All-MAC,” Croft said. “But she took a two year absence from racing when she was at Oregon. She didn’t get to compete at all due to injuries. And to come back still not completely healthy, this has been a good first cross country season for her.”  

Lisle finished 31st with a time of 22:07.9, and freshman Sydney Gallagher placed 46th with a time of 22:40.8 to round out KSU’s top 50 finishers. 

The University of Toledo’s women’s cross country team won the meet with a score of 32. 

The Flashes men’s team placed sixth out of eight teams with a score of 155. 

Croft said that the men’s game plan wasn’t as well executed as the women’s.

“We thought we were a little better than what we placed as a team,” he said. “The plan was for [freshman Baidy Ba and sophomore Joe Farley] to do what they’ve been doing all year and go running up front. Going out at the top 15 and then moving into the top 10.”

“[Senior Drew Johnson’s] plan was to start further back and work his way up to those two. And he did that pretty quickly, actually within the first mile. He started way out back in the 30s, but he moved his way up with Joe and Baidy at about 3K.” 

That scheme changed, however, as Farley had a medical issue arise during the race.

“The plan was for us to have three in the top 15,” Croft said. “We didn’t exactly get to do that. But we were close.” 

Despite the issue Farley still finished as the team’s third best runner, placing 30th with a time of 25:38.2. 

Johnson finished as the team’s best runner, placing 11th and earning All-MAC second team honors with a time of 24:43.3. This is his second straight year receiving the honors. 

Croft said that people may chalk up Johnson’s success to being a senior, but that isn’t the case. 

“He’s really only had one full year in the MAC,” Croft said. “He had his sophomore year, and last year was COVID. So he’s just matured, and he trusts himself, his talent and his training. He’s made huge gains in training, and he just had to believe in what he’s been doing. Being mature about it was how he was able to execute and improve upon his performance from last year.” 

Ba, who had finished as a top three runner for the team in every meet this season, finished 17th with a time of 24:43.3. He was the first true freshman runner across the finish line, earning him the MAC Freshman of the Year award. 

Croft said he was most impressed by Ba’s maturity as a freshman.

“He did slide back a few spots from 5k,” Croft said. “But not by much. And he did enough to hold off the Miami freshman. He was a little bit more strong willed and bullheaded. He wanted to put himself up in it from the get go. He held on as long as he could, and he faded a bit. But he’s strong enough that he didn’t fall too far back.” 

Eastern Michigan University finished first as a men’s team with a score of 30. 

KSU’s next meet will be the NCAA Great Lakes Regional in Evansville, Indiana on Friday Nov. 12. 

Croft said that both the men and women’s team have challenges to overcome heading into the meet.

“Our men move up to 10K, so that’s always a challenge,” he said. “But we kind of train for 10K through the whole year anyway. And I spoke to the women and told them it’s hard to go from such an emotional high. You put everything into conference, and they did the best we’ve done in seven years. So I really wanted them to ground themselves and refocus.”

Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]