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Rutgers looks for improvement at Big Ten Championships after last year's last-place showing

The Rutgers women’s cross country team will put its hard work and training to the test on Sunday as it participates in the Big Ten Cross Country Championships 6-kilometer at the Indiana University Championship Cross Country Course in Bloomington, Indiana.

The Scarlet Knights will compete against nationally ranked U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) programs such as No. 9 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan, No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 19 Minnesota, No. 20 Michigan State and No. 29 Indiana.

Rutgers recently dropped out of the USTFCCCA Mid-Atlantic Regional Rankings after being ranked No. 15 from Oct. 2 to Oct. 16, according to the USTFCCCA’s most recent rankings.

At last season’s Big Ten Championships, Rutgers finished last, scoring 439 points, averaging 24:00 minutes and placing 16th overall.

Returning athletes for this weekend’s 6-kilometer run include senior Alexandra Juzwiak and sophomores Emma Bergman, Nadia Saponara, Stephanie Mauer and Lou Mialhe.

Both Saponara and Bergman have placed within the top five for the Knights in each race they have participated in this year.

Junior Genevieve Cickavage, who recently collected a new 5-kilometer personal best at the Metropolitan Championships, reflected on the headway the roster has seen leading up to the Big Ten Championships.

“We’ve had a pretty solid season. There were definitely some rough patches,” Cickavage said. “Girls with low iron and getting sick, but that happens on every team so we weren’t special.”

Cickavage remarked on how the team’s first-place effort at the Lehigh Invitational that started off the season had the athletes hit the ground running through a short, but intense schedule.

“Our first meet at Lehigh, our coach put us in there without any expectations,” she said. “Since then, we’ve just been trying to work hard and put our best foot forward at each meet. We’ve had a tighter pack this year than in either of my previous two years here. That’s really exciting to see.”

The junior also highlighted how harder training sessions have paid off for everyone across the roster, as the team has consistently pushed each other in both practice and at meets.

“In the past, we’ve always had different pace groups. In practice now, everyone is running the same pace as everyone else,” she said. “The pack just seems like it's gotten a lot tighter, which is definitely going to make Big Ten cool because we can all work together and push each other to run our best there. I’m just really excited about the pack.”

Cickavage appreciated the positive impact runners like freshman Olympia Martin, who led the squad in the first three races of the season, and Kaitlyn Bragen have brought to the team in only their first season.

Efforts from runners like Martin and Bragen were undoubtedly the leading factors in Rutgers’ USTFCCCA Mid-Atlantic Regional Ranking earlier this month.

Cickavage hopes the youth movement continues not only this weekend in Bloomington but also in the NCAA Regional Championships next month.

“We’re a pretty young team, so we’re just trying to run our best. We’re not going in relaxed at all. This is where we want to show all of the hard work we’ve done,” she said. “This and Regionals — this is likely going to be it for us. Honestly just test ourselves to see what we can do.”

Regardless of the results after Sunday’s 6-kilometer, Cickavage emphasized that the team will not be dwelling on the “what-if’s” or the disparity in reputation between more established programs in the Big Ten.

Instead, she said that the team already has a hopeful feeling after experiencing unexpected progression throughout the season. Cickavage envisions a fruitful future for Rutgers, one that is focused on recruiting and training instead of chasing other Big Ten teams.

“I definitely feel a change for the better in the program. The entire team dynamic has definitely gotten a lot better since I’ve been here,” she said. “Moving forward, we’re in a building stage. Based on the last two recruiting classes and the girls we’re recruiting now, I think that we should have a stronger program as the years progress.”

For updates on the Rutgers women's cross country team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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