For the third straight year and the ninth time in the last 10 seasons, the Villanova women’s cross country team is headed to the NCAA Championships. A second place team finish at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional last week earned the Wildcats an automatic bid to nationals, while the Villanova men’s squad will be represented by a pair of athletes who qualified as individuals for the championships based on their finishes at the regional meet.
UPDATE: Saturday morning’s races at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park have been moved up due to a forecast for inclement and possibly severe weather in Louisville later in the day. The women’s race will now begin at 9 a.m., followed by the men’s race at 10 a.m. The awards ceremony following the competition will begin at approximately 11 a.m. and has been moved indoors to the Recreation Building.
There have been just two host sites for the NCAA Championships over the last 14 years, with Louisville serving as the site this year for the third time since 2011. The national championships consist of the women’s 6,000 meter race and the men’s 10,000 meter race. In addition to the team berth for the Wildcats women’s team, sophomores Casey Comber (Maple Glen, Pa.) and Andrew Marston (Wayne, Pa.) from the men’s team will compete as individuals.
Villanova is the most successful women’s cross country program in history, with a record nine national championships to its credit (no other Division I school has won more than five national titles). In addition, the Wildcats will be making their 29th team appearance at the national meet this season. That is tied for the fifth-most NCAA berths all-time, trailing just four schools who reached the championships this year for either the 30th or 31st times.
The path to the NCAA meet has been a steady one for the Wildcats, who have terrific depth throughout the lineup. Villanova had a split of just 30 seconds between its five scoring runners at the Mid-Atlantic Regional last week, and for only the third time since 2000 had each of its top six runners finish in the top 25 overall to earn Mid-Atlantic All-Region honors. Junior Bella Burda (Pleasant Valley, N.Y.) was the individual champion at the regional meet and was named the Mid-Atlantic Region Women’s Athlete of the Year earlier this week by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).
Burda preceded her regional title by finishing first at the Penn State National Open in mid-October and then leading Villanova with a third place finish at the BIG EAST Championships later in the month. She has now been a first team All-BIG EAST honoree and an all-region performer in each of her three seasons wearing the Wildcats uniform.
The rest of the Villanova lineup is stacked with both a veteran presence and an influx of younger runners who have already made an impact. Senior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner (Dublin, Ireland) is the team’s top returner from last season, while she and classmate Katie Fisher (Uxbridge, Ont.) along Burda and fellow junior Nicole Hutchinson (West Vancouver, B.C.) have been in the team’s lineup at nationals each of the past two seasons.
Junior Kaley Ciluffo (LeClaire, Iowa) has taken a big step forward in her second year with the Wildcats after transferring from Clemson, while freshmen Rachel McArthur (Bristow, Va.) and Lauren Ryan (South Yarra, Australia) have made consistent strides during the course of their first collegiate season. Ciluffo, McArthur and Ryan finished consecutively in 13th through 15th places at last week’s regional.
Villanova made its debut in the women’s national championships in 1983, and since then has won nine team national titles, produced nine individual national champions and earned a total of 55 All-America honors.
On the men’s side, Comber and Marston were automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Championships by being among the top four finishers at the regional meet from a team that did not receive a team berth to nationals. They finished second and third, respectively, at the meet and led an upstart Wildcats squad to a third place team finish in a remarkably close team race. Despite having a young and inexperienced roster this season, Villanova made a great deal of progress during the fall and was likely one of the last teams under consideration for an at-large NCAA Championships berth.
Marston was also an individual qualifier for nationals as a redshirt freshman last year, while Comber will be making his NCAA Championships debut. Both runners were named Mid-Atlantic All-Region and first team All-BIG EAST selections both last season and this year.
The pair has swapped spots in the team lineup throughout the season. Marston was the overall runner-up in each of his first three races of the season at the Main Line Invitational, the Penn State National Open and the BIG EAST Championships before coming in third at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional. He finished four spots ahead of Comber at Penn State and one spot ahead of his teammate at the BIG EAST meet. Comber, meanwhile, was the individual champion at the Main Line Invitational and the runner-up at the regional meet in addition to leading the Wildcats with an eighth place finish at the Paul Short Run.
Villanova has produced 38 men’s All-Americans at the NCAA Championships. Last season, Patrick Tiernan became the Wildcats second men’s runner to win an individual national title.