Social Media: Runners Ava Earl, Mia Mraz and Maddy Powers reflect on the 2023-24 NCAA cross-country season, provide insights about team culture and team secrets to success, and share their visions for the future of the team.

The ’Cats have boasted highs and fought through lows this cross-country season. Despite falling short of team NCAA national championship qualification in the fall, Northwestern cross country shattered two program records in the spring (three, if you count the second time third-year Ava Earl broke the 5000m program record she set just a few weeks prior). Earl, second-year Mia Mraz and first-year Maddy Powers provide insights into the 2023-24 NCAA cross country season.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NBN: In the last 5 years, NUXC has matured into a force to be reckoned with. Your coach, Jill Miller, joined the program in 2019, and in 2022, she led the ’Cats to their first NCAA championship appearance after 20 years. In light of her recent contract extension, how important has she been in getting the squad from where it started to where it is now?

Ava: Jill has been instrumental. When I was a freshman, that year was when the team culture as a whole really started to shift because by that time she had been coaching for about 3 years. She takes us very seriously.

Mia: The statistics speak for themselves. It's not that she has some secret training program that no one else knows. It's that she focuses on the things that other coaches tend to overlook, like the mental prep and the building of team solidarity and the team culture. Is it acceptable to decide not to try hard for a day? No. Every day you show up and you work hard. We’re working together [to pursue] a goal. That’s really what she’s changed on the team because that [attitude] really wasn’t there before her.

Maddy: A big part of why I came here was Jill. I think a lot of people on the team can agree with this: you can fully trust her, that she's gonna do the best for you as an athlete. Some coaches in the NCAA aren’t that way.

Ava: Jill takes every aspect seriously – the team culture, the training obviously, also fueling and sleeping. Sometimes in running culture, especially with women, things get underemphasized or emphasized in the wrong direction like, “skinny is fast,” which is just not true. Then you get broken for the rest of your collegiate career. She really emphasizes longevity for all of us. We’re not going to come out of the gate and [surpass] everyone’s expectations one year because we’re doing it the right way and that takes time. The steady build has been because of that.

NBN: Six runners achieved personal records at Penn Relays, the team’s last meet of the outdoor season. NCAA cross country is often viewed as a purely individual sport by people who may not be familiar with it. How has this group grown as a team this year, and how has team support contributed to individual successes?

Mia: We found success last year, but just because you have it one year doesn’t mean you have it consistently. Especially since we have turnover with athletes every year, a big part of the growth for this year was that everyone was dedicated to the same culture. Last year, we still had girls on the team that came from before Jill was recruiting, and they were recruited under very different expectations. This is the first year where we were like, “We want to build a championship team, and we want to do the work to get there.” That mindset switch has been what led to some of the direct results that we’ve seen.

Ava: A lot of our personal bests at Penn Relays were from freshman. Having a fall sport is fun because you get right in right away, but also it means that each recruiting class will grow so much more by the time we get to the spring. The freshman class has so much space to really fulfill their own potential.

NBN: Maddy, in your first year at Northwestern, you placed seventh in 800m program history with a time of 2:20.01. How were you able to find success in your first year?

Maddy: I’ve had some ups and downs, definitely. It was a lot of really buying into the program values and ideals of training hard but recovering harder and being grateful for every opportunity that I’m given. When I get on the line to race, Jill doesn’t have to give me the opportunity to be there. I’m really trying to take advantage of it and get the best out of me every single day. I’m really just buying into the team culture [of] “work hard, train hard,” but making sure I’m doing the little things right too, like sleeping enough, eating enough. That has really helped me with the 800m time but also Ava Criniti and Jackie Holman with their insane PRs at Penn Relays.

NBN: Ava, you broke the 1500m program record with a time of 4:24.05, 10 seconds faster than your previous personal best. You broke the 5000m program record at Raleigh Relays, and you broke it again at Penn Relays. How did it feel to break these records? Was there a time when it felt impossible along the way?

Ava: I felt good about it going into the season. I had wanted to break records [in the winter season] too, and I was a couple seconds off each time. I felt like I could definitely do it, and I wanted to. I felt determined. I went into it with just enough confidence. Honestly, our outdoor 5K record is a little weaker than the indoor 3K. It's not like I made some huge jump. It was just a little more achievable for me, but it felt really good to finally have a stamp.

NBN: What are some individual and team goals for the upcoming season?

Mia: Our team is continuing to get better every season and we’re really going to keep that moving. Our goal is to be incredibly nationally competitive this fall. With the restructuring of the B1G, it's going to be more of a challenge than ever. If anyone can do it, it's this group of people.

Maddy: It's amazing to be surrounded by a group of women who are continuously working hard, want to be the best in the nation, are going to do what they have to do to be there and are going to support each other. I think a lot of toxic culture can be [present] with running because it can be viewed as individual, like tearing [other runners] down. On this team, everyone builds each other up. We get competitive. I want to go after Ava’s records when I get older, but it's a culture where we continuously build and build up. We want to be very nationally competitive.

NBN: Are there any memories that stand out to you from the 2023-24 NCAA cross-country season?

Ava: A lot of us went into the fall season and [NCAA] regionals with the idea that making it to nationals again was a given, and we didn't do that. I think that was a wake-up call for all of us collectively. We had some breakthrough races, and that wasn’t good enough. We executed well, and it wasn’t enough. We’re really fucking excited to get better and to build on that. We’re not going to let the bar drop, but we’re also not going to say that we aren’t working really fucking hard because we are.

Thumbnail by Rachel Yoon/North by Northwestern.