Eleven years ago, Breeda Dennehy won the Southeast Region in cross country. She went on to finish 16th at nationals that year. It was the best finish ever for a Western woman at nationals, mainly because she is the only Lady Topper runner to qualify for nationals.
Or at least she was.
Yesterday, senior Olga Cronin qualified for the NCAA championships with her performance in Saturday’s district meet. Cronin finished 17th out of 185 runners. Her time of 20:50 for 6K was the best time of her career by over a minute.
Even after the performance of a lifetime, Cronin was still forced to wait two days to find out if she had qualified for nationals
“When I came in Saturday, Michelle (Scott) was like ‘Oh, you qualified, you qualified.’ And everyone was saying ‘You qualified,'” Cronin said. “Two years ago, no one was saying that. I wasn’t going to be completely happy until it was certain.”
Cronin did not qualify for nationals when she finished 12th at District in 2000, five places higher than Saturday.
Unlike the football’s Bowl Championship Series or basketball’s March Madness, the selection of runners for the NCAA cross country championships includes two variables: individuals and teams.
Teams finishing first and second in their respective districts automatically qualify. There are nine districts, totaling 18 automatic bids. Thirteen more teams are selected based on performance throughout the season.
It was the strength of Western’s district that opened the door for Cronin.
After all teams are chosen, the next four individuals from each district automatically qualify.
Wake Forest and North Carolina State finished first and second, respectively. Combined, they had seven runners in front of Cronin. She was then at worst the tenth individual Saturday. All Cronin could hope for was for more teams to qualify from the district at-large. Luckily, six of the top 23 teams in the nation are in Western’s district.
Yesterday, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and William and Mary all received at-large bids. These four teams accounted for eight of the nine individuals that beat Cronin Saturday.
So Cronin got the second of the four automatic bids. The fifth individual from the district was only two and half seconds behind Cronin, narrowly missing the cut.
“All day I was checking the Internet because I thought that was how you found out,” Cronin said. “I didn’t realize they actually called you.”
They called, but Cronin wasn’t sitting by the phone. She was doing what got her to nationals.
She was out running.
“I’m thrilled,” Cronin said. “I’m thrilled to bits. Since I’ve been here it’s been the goal to get to nationals.”
Now she’ll try not be content with getting there. She still has to run the race, which will be Monday in Terre Haute, Ind.
“I’ve got to run my heart out. It’s the biggest race of my life so far,” she said. “I’m sure it will be somewhat overwhelming, but I’m going to enjoy it.”
Western’s women finished in a tie for tenth at districts, while the men ended their season with a 21st-place finish out of 25 teams.