Madonna University women’s cross-country team wins college's first national championship

Mackenzie Gurne, Christina Murphy and Alison Shapic approach the finish line together, pacing Madonna University’s women’s cross-country team to the NAIA national championship Nov. 22 in Fort Vancouver, Wash. The championship is the Livonia-based college's first-ever national title in any sport. (Courtesy photos)

LIVONIA — All season long, Madonna University’s cross-country runners never lost sight of their vision. When race day came, they stuck to their plan.

The result? The first-ever national championship for the Livonia-based Catholic college.

A year after finishing a close second at the 2018 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Cross-Country National Championships, the Crusaders women’s team ascended to the top spot Nov. 22 in Fort Vancouver, Wash.

Christina Murphy, Alison Shapic and Mackenzie Gurne led the Crusaders by finishing 14th, 15th and 16th out of the 340-runner field, covering the tight, hilly 5-kilometer course in 18:22.1, 18:23,5 and 18:24.7, respectively. Kathleen George (38th/18:48.7) and Caroline George (46th/18:56.2) completed the team scoring, while Erin Seibert (64th/19:07.0) and Kateri Mills (68th/19:09.3) solidified Madonna’s lineup.

“We were fortunate that we had seven runners very similar performance-wise and they could train together,” coach Patrick Daugherty said. “We wanted our top three to stick together for the first two-thirds of the race, and it worked for them mentally, with the way they finished 14-15-16. We knew where we were the whole race, and believe it or not, I knew we were going to win even before the last runners finished.”

Christina Murphy, Alison Shapic, Mackenzie Gurne and Tony Floyd show off their All-American awards following the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national cross-country championships Nov. 22.

Madonna — the second-ranked team going into the meet — totaled 111 points and beat 36 other schools, including College of Idaho (runner-up with 147) and top-ranked Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta (third-place with 163). Fellow Catholic school and Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference rival Aquinas was fifth (240).

“That was a little more motivational,” Daugherty said of the pre-meet polls. “We were No. 1 through the first four rankings and slid back to two. (SCAD-Atlanta) beat us head-to-head when we raced them in Louisville (on Oct. 5) so they were rated higher than us, but it probably did pay dividends.”

Daugherty was especially proud that there was only a 34-second spread among Madonna’s top five runners, and 47 seconds among its top seven.

“That’s one of the things we look at when we keep our own stats,” he said. “We knew how it important that has been for every meet. Thirty-four seconds first through fifth is very good.” 

What’s remarkable about Madonna’s lineup is that it contains nobody who earned all-state honors in high school, yet here they are as national champions.

“None of them were top-30 at the (high school) state meet,” Daugherty said. “Sometimes you get kids that are under-coached, or there’s a better runner on the team taking the spotlight.”

In addition, most of the runners come from the immediate surrounding area — Murphy, the Georges and Siebert attended Livonia Public Schools. Shapic is from Madison Heights, Gurne is from Shelby Township. Mills, from Belding, who attended Grand Rapids West Catholic, is the only one from beyond Metro Detroit.

“That wasn’t intentional the way we have it; usually we get local runners,” Daugherty said. “I don’t care where they’re from, as long as they are motivated and want to work hard and develop.”

With the finish line in sight, Madonna University senior Tony Floyd finishes his 8-kilometer race in second place out of 335 runners at the NAIA national championship Nov. 22 in Fort Vancouver, Wash.

Another runner hailing from Livonia, senior Tony Floyd, crossed the line second out of 335 runners in the men’s race. He ran the 8-kilometer race in 24:43.0, finishing four seconds behind defending national champion Mark Shaw of Oklahoma City College.

“It’s nothing to be disappointed in; he’s been 11th, fourth, third and now second,” Daugherty said. “It was a tight group; at 4 kilometers there was a pack of 12, then it was whittled down to three at 6k, and that’s where he (Shaw) tried to gap everybody, and he did, but Tony was closing hard at the end. If the race was another 30 or 40 meters, he would have got him.”

This is Daugherty’s fifth season coaching the Crusaders, and the team has raised its profile each year.

“We’ve had the team for 15 years; when were ninth (nationally) three years ago I knew we had something,” he said. “Aquinas has been the dominant team in the conference for a long time and we were finally able to beat them last year. At the (2018) national meet we were (ranked) fourth coming in and got second, so the motivation was there this year. We concentrated on that all year. This group never raced like they were under pressure because they’re mentally solid.”

Now that Madonna owns its first national title, what’s next for the program?

“The next step is to strive to be a top 10, top 15 team every year going on — both the women’s and the men’s teams,” Daugherty said. “Expecting to win every year is not feasible, but the last three years have been awesome.”