MSU - Leah O'Connor Named Big Ten Women's Cross Country Athlete of the Year

MSU - Leah O'Connor Named Big Ten Women's Cross Country Athlete of the Year

Provided by MSU

Nov. 5, 2014

EAST LANSING, Mich. - The Big Ten Conference announced their individual award winners for the 2014 men’s and women’s cross country season on Wednesday afternoon with Michigan State senior Leah O’Connor earning the Big Ten Women’s Athlete of the Year. Spartans Head Coach Walt Drenth was voted the Women’s Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season and fourth time in five years.

“I really thought we had two legitimate candidates for the athlete of the year award in Rachele and Leah,” said MSU Director of Cross Country and Track & Field Walt Drenth. “We like to measure our success at the end of the year and Leah was phenomenal at the Big Ten Championship and is very deserving of the honor with all the work she’s put in throughout her career.”

O’Connor saved arguably the best performance of her MSU career for this past Sunday’s Big Ten Championship race in Iowa City. The three-time first team All-Big Ten selection (2012-2014) shattered her career-best mark in the 6K with a time of 19:26.30 to finish first overall and lead the Spartans to their second straight conference championship with a team score of 26 points, the third-lowest total in Big Ten history. Thus far this season, O’Connor has recorded five top-10 finishes in five competitions, including a win at the Spartan Invitational and a runner-up finish at the Bill Dellinger Invitational.

“Coach Drenth always wants us to run our best at the championship meets and I was really happy to go out and do that for our team,” stated O’Connor. “Going out and scoring 26 points as a team was just an awesome way to lead into regionals and nationals."

For the second-straight year, Drenth was the unanimous choice for the conference’s women’s coach of the year award. After opening the year ranked sixth in the USTFCCCA Preseason Coaches’ Poll, Drenth guided the Spartans to their first No. 1 ranking in program history on Oct. 21. The rise to the top of poll followed three team victories at the Bill Dellinger Invitational (Sept. 5), the Roy Griak Invitational (Sept. 27) and the Wisconsin Invitational (Oct. 17).

The MSU women have continued their remarkable season since taking over the country’s top spot, winning the Big Ten Championship in dominating fashion with 26 points (29 points ahead of second-place Wisconsin). O’Connor (1st - 19:26.30), Rachele Schulist (19:54.40), Lindsay Clark (4th - 19:59.70) and Julia Otwell (7th - 20:04.10) each finished in the top-10 at Sunday’s Big Ten Championship meet and were named first team All-Big Ten. Sara Kroll (11th - 20:18.90) and Alexis Wiersma (13th - 20:24.60) were named second team All-Big Ten, giving the Spartans a league-high six runners on the all-conference team.

“It’s a great honor with the great group of coaches we have in the conference,” said Drenth. “But to me, what it means more than anything else is that I have exceptional help in Lisa [Senakiewich] and Aaron [Simoneau]. The support staff around us is fantastic. The work of the student-athletes is just as important as well. Their commitment to each other, the program and the ideas that we’ve tried to teach them has been outstanding. This is a great award, but it’s even more gratifying to see this great group of young people be successful in both academics and athletics.”

Senior representatives Ben Carruthers and Emma Drenth of Michigan State were also recognized as honorees for the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. The student-athletes chosen from schools within the conference are individuals who have distinguished themselves through sportsmanship and ethical behavior. They must also be in good academic standing and demonstrated good citizenship outside of the sports-competition setting.

“Ben and Emma both exemplify the type of leadership we preach as coaches,” added Drenth. “They’re both outstanding students that have excelled as athletes as well. For Ben, it’s been a long road and he’s worked extremely hard to make himself into a high-level athlete at the Big Ten and national levels. Emma’s had to overcome a lot in her career, but has consistently been one of our most energetic and enthusiastic leaders during her time here as well.”

The USTFCCCA released their latest coaches’ poll on Tuesday and the Spartan women’s squad maintained their No. 1 ranking unanimously with all 12 votes, followed by Georgetown, Oregon, Arkansas, and Iowa State rounding out the top five. Big Ten members Wisconsin (6), Michigan (8), Ohio State (19) and Minnesota (20) were also ranked within the top-30. The MSU men’s team checked in at No. 27 in the latest rankings along with league members Wisconsin (6), Michigan (12), Indiana (20) and Penn State (24).

The Spartans will be off this weekend as they get set to compete in the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Championship meet on November 14 in Madison, Wisconsin.