Madonna cross-country ranked No. 1 in nation, first time in university's history

The Madonna University women's cross-country team warms up before a race at Cass-Benton Park in Northville. The Crusaders are ranked No. 1 nationwide among NAIA schools. (Photos by Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

As season dawns, Livonia college's runners cautiously optimistic about national title chances

LIVONIA — While the 2019 fall sports season is barely under way, Madonna University’s cross-country team has already accomplished a historic “first.”

The Livonia Catholic college's women’s cross-country is the first team in the school’s 31-year athletic history to be ranked No. 1 in a national poll. Runners-up at the 2018 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship meet, the poll voters think the Crusaders could contend for this season’s title when the final meet rolls around Nov. 22.

While the honor is prestigious, everyone associated with the team is taking the news with a grain of salt.

“I don’t like the No. 1 ranking at the beginning of the year, but it is what it is,” coach Patrick Daugherty said. “We talked about it for a day or so and what it meant. Obviously, there’s a lot of respect for what we’ve done, but the bad thing is it doesn’t mean anything. 

As Daugherty says, “There are no trophies in August or September,” but “what’s important is to see where we are at the end, and hopefully we have a chance to go for the No. 1 ranking at the national meet.”

The team's top runner, Alison Shapic, says the Crusaders are “really excited” about the No. 1 ranking, but “we’re putting that in the back of our mind until November, because we’re really just looking forward to working together as a team this year, and giving our best effort.”

Last November, Madonna finished a close second at the NAIA national championship meet in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Crusaders return six of seven runners who competed in the event — including the program’s first three All-Americans: Shapic, MacKenzie Gurne and Christina Murphy.

Just past the mile mark, Madonna University senior Alison Shapic challenges for the lead at the Running Fit-Detroit Mercy Titans Invitational. She won the 5-kilometer race with a strong kick.

As a result, Madonna was marked as the pre-season favorite on 14 of the 20 ballots. The other six first-place votes went to Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, which ranks second. In third place is Taylor (Ind). University, where the Crusaders will compete next on Sept. 20, so Daugherty and crew are viewing that as an important meet for both the men's and women's squads.

“It’s a pretty big meet,” Daugherty said. “The best motivation factor is that was our worst race of the year at Taylor last year, and we were so far behind Taylor, and at the end of the year we passed them at the national meet. It was probably actually better that we ran so poorly there that it motivated us.”

Madonna has already run one race: last Saturday's 33rd annual Running Fit-Detroit Mercy Titans Invitational at Cass-Benton Park in Northville. The Crusaders had both individuals champions (Shapic and Tony Floyd), and the women's team finished second in the six-team field, six points behind Wayne State University, while the men’s team was fourth.

“I think every girl worked through the race differently, but I think overall as a team we worked well together,” said Shapic, who covered the hilly 5-kilometer course in 18:29.3. “Before the race, our coach said, ‘Don’t worry about your time; just focus on working together as a team, running with that front group.’ That was my main goal. It was nice having a Wayne State competitor to run with the whole way, we were able to push each other.”

Behind Shapic, Gurne (third, 18:29.3), Caroline George (5th, 19:10.5), Kateri Mills (16th, 20:13.8) and Erin Seibert (17th, 20:18.7) rounded out the team scoring. The Crusaders could be even stronger once Murphy returns from an injury.

While Shapic needed a late kick to take the top spot, Floyd won the men’s race comfortably by 12 seconds, running 20:29.3 for four miles.

“I feel like I’m in shape, but I know this course is really tough. If you’re not focused and not mentally tough, it’s hard to run a consistently tough race here,” said Floyd, who took control just past the halfway point of the race. “We were going back out toward the uphill again, and I thought, 'If I can just get up this hill and use the downhill, I think I’ll be OK,' and that’s what I did.”

Madonna University's Tony Floyd is all alone in front in the final half-mile of the Running Fit-Detroit Mercy Titan Invitational at Cass-Benton Park. Floyd won the four-mile race by 12 seconds.

While the Madonna women are in the spotlight, the men have been steadily improving. They reached the nationals last year, too, finishing 14th, and are ranked 22nd in the initial poll.

“Hopefully the team goes back to nationals this year and we finish better than we did last year,” Floyd said. “My ultimate goal is to win the national championship this year in cross-country.”

While the team’s first meet served as an opportunity to “let the animal out,” according to Daugherty, the team and individuals will focus on goals from week to week until November. But the prospects of a national championship are hard to ignore, Shapic said.

“Yeah, that’s our primary goal,” she admitted. “Being a senior this year, I have some of my own personal, individual goals, though. I’m shooting to be All-American again. I hope and I know that most of my teammates will reach their goals, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Overall, Shapic is glad to be part of such a solid program.

“It’s really evolved from freshman year until now,” she said. “We’ve made great strides in teamwork, working together and building a better work ethic as a team. Hopefully being our third year at the national meet, I’m excited to show people how important cross-country is.”