Maxwell’s Win Paces Trio of Panthers in NCAA Mile

By Fritz Parker

Alison Maxwell ’15 sprinted past M.I.T.’s Maryann Gong with 100 meters to go in the NCAA Division-III Championship women’s mile final on Saturday, March 14, holding off the field down the final straightaway to claim the national title. The national championship was Middlebury’s first in women’s track and field since 2000. Maxwell’s teammates Summer Spillane ’15 and Sarah Guth ’15 finished fifth and sixth respectively in the same event to earn All-American honors of their own as Middlebury placed three runners on the championship podium.

Going into the national championship weekend, the Panthers ranked an impressive four women among the top 20 in the nation in the mile event: Maxwell, Erzsie Nagy ’17, Spillane and Guth. Middlebury Distance Coach Nicole Wilkerson – the 2015 USTFCCCA New England Women’s Assistant Coach of the Year – decided to withhold Nagy from the mile in order for her to focus on the 1600-meter leg of the distance medley relay (DMR). Maxwell, Spillane and Guth, meanwhile, were all selected to the 16-athlete field for the individual mile.

Women’s 5,000-meter runner Adrian Walsh ’16, men’s miler Wilder Schaaf ’14.5 and the women’s DMR of Maxwell, Alex Morris ’16, Paige Fernandez ’17 and Nagy also made the NCAA fields in their respective events and travelled to Winston-Salem, N.C. to compete with the nation’s best Division-III runners for All-American accolades and the shot at a national title.

Friday’s women’s mile preliminary split the field into two eight-person heats. The top three finishers in each heat would make Saturday’s final, along with the four next best times. In the first heat, Maxwell and Spillane led the field for much of what became a slow, tactical race. After much jostling over the first six laps of the eight-lap race, the Middlebury runners emerged from the pack in the final 400 meters to finish first and second and cement their spots in the final.

Guth and the second heat, meanwhile, were not so tactical. M.I.T.’s Gong led the field for much of the run, before Middlebury’s Guth and Eastern Mennonite’s Hannah Chappell-Dick out-sprinted her to the finish to qualify for the final.

In the men’s mile prelim, Schaaf did not have the juice left to chase down the runners in the front. He finished seventh in his heat and 12th overall, missing the final by two spots.

The final of the women’s 5,000 – in which Walsh participated – was the subject of a major officiating blunder; the event’s NCAA officials miscounted the laps of the lead runners, stopping the field with 200 meters to go and not realizing their mistake until it was too late to correct. Walsh, who was running in ninth place at the time of the error – just outside the top eight who are designated All-Americans – was denied the opportunity to chase down the runner in front of her and thus earn All-American laurels. An official protest from Middlebury Coach Martin Beatty was denied by the NCAA, and the results were booked as final despite the field running 4,800 instead of 5,000 meters.

Rounding out Friday’s action was the final of the women’s DMR. On the opening 1,200-meter leg, Maxwell hung in the back of the pack before sprinting forward on the penultimate lap to hand off in second place. Morris – the 400-meter leg – was able to hold ground as Middlebury went out in the lead pack alongside St. Thomas, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. Fernandez got out fast on the 800-meter leg, catching up to the lead runner through 400 meters, before falling back over the last lap to hand the baton to anchor Nagy in fifth, about 30 meters behind the leading pair.

With 600 meters to go, Gong and Nagy overtook the second-place runner from St. Thomas. With 200 meters to go, the front pack merged, and the top four runners each broke into a sprint. After making up so much ground during the early phases of the race, Nagy was unable to hang with the other kicking runners, and Middlebury took fourth, four seconds behind the winning team from St. Thomas.

With the fourth-place finish, the DMR runners were all named All-Americans. It was the first such honor for Fernandez, the second for Maxwell and Nagy, and the third for Morris.

“My goal was to balance both the mile and DMR,” Maxwell said. “I wanted to figure out a way to give everything to both, which is kind of an oxymoron, but I wanted to do as well as possible in both.”

Returning to the track on Saturday for the finals of the women’s mile, the Panthers had three runners in the final heat of 10. The final went out tactically, with the Panther trio of Maxwell, Spillane and Guth taking to the front through the first quarter mile. 

As the bell rang to signal the final lap, Maxwell trailed Gong by about two meters. Gong – a regional rival to whom Maxwell had lost several times during the indoor track season – tried to separate herself with a dead sprint along the back stretch, but was unable to add to her lead.

Entering the final turn, Maxwell swung into the outside of lane one, catching up to Gong and quickly passing her as she emerged on the straightaway with the lead. Chappell-Dick gave chase as she too passed Gong on the final straightaway, but Maxwell was not going to be caught, as the Middlebury senior crossed the line at 4:56.17 to win the national title. Spillane and Guth followed closely behind in fifth and sixth.

Maxwell’s first-place finish marks Middlebury’s first ever national championship in an individual running event in track and field. 

“When I crossed the finish line, I wasn’t sure that it was real,” Maxwell said. “Now that there’s been time for it to sink in, what stands out to me is that there were three of us who were All-Americans in the same event. It shows all the hard work that Nicole has put in as a coach. I think it says a lot about our program.”

The Middlebury women’s team finished 10th overall with 22 points, while the men’s team did not score in the meet.

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