Oct. 6, 2009
By Larry Watts
Head coach April Likhite finally has the Northwestern women's cross country team up and running so to speak. The former Mississippi State All-American knows full well it's not going to be an overnight success and the Wildcats will not be a threat to instantly overtake the Big Ten powers, so measuring the progress will come in baby steps.
And if baby steps are to be taken, it's best to do it with freshmen and sophomores. That's why 10 freshmen and six sophomores form the base of Northwestern's 2009 squad.
And one of those freshmen, Allegra Mayer, has already stepped ahead of the Wildcat pack. A four-time qualifier for the California state cross country championship and the daughter of a former U.S. Olympic Trials marathon competitor, the Palo Alto native has already been the top Cat in her team's first two meets. She took eighth in DePaul's season-opening Early Bird Invitational and was third at the Northern Illinois Huskie Open.
"I did not expect to make this quick of an impression," Mayer says. "Coach (Likhite) told me I would make an impact from the beginning, but two of our top runners (sophomores Sophia Ewald and Molly Waterhouse) are injured, so that has had a lot to do with it.
"I didn't know where I was going to be (in the lineup). Coach Likhite just told us all to do what we could do. I ran my race and I was surprised to be our top finisher. I really have no idea where I fit in because I'm new to this whole thing."
Fitting in is one of the prime reasons Mayer came to Northwestern, rejecting California schools like UC San Diego, UCLA and UC Berkeley along with Williams and Brown.
"Although the location was nice with the California schools, the big problem was the huge class sizes," she says. "That wasn't personal enough for my learning style. I think I can gain a lot from having more personal contact with the professors in smaller classes.
"Northwestern is located near a large metropolitan area and I wanted a place where there would be a lot of different cultures. Diversity is a big deal to me."
Mayer had actually made an oral commitment to Brown University in late November of her senior year. However, communication breakdowns with Brown's head coach made her have second thoughts.
"Once I came out here to visit, I fell in love with this team," Mayer says. "I wanted to contribute to a team right off the bat, not redshirt my freshman year, and Northwestern offered me the best chance to not only contribute but to grow as a person. That is very important when you are at a point in your life when you're on your own for the first time and trying to develop your own style of thinking outside the bubble of your hometown. I value the fact that this university and Chicago are real melting pots in diversity."
Mayer credits her unique first name to her mother. "We're not Italian, surprisingly enough," she says. "My mother grew up in a family where music was really appreciated. Allegro is a musical tempo, meaning quickly and lively in Italian. I like to think of that as my life motto."
Not only did Mayer elect to temporarily leave the sunny confines of California behind her, but her twin sister Franzesca came to Illinois as well. Franzesca is a freshman at Knox College in Galesburg.
"We were the only ones in our class to come to Illinois," she says with a laugh. "It was hard leaving California and I think it's going to get much harder as we head into winter.
"Everyone says I'm crazy for coming to the coldest place in the country. I don't have any winter clothes yet. Hopefully, my parents will help me with that when they come visit me for our invitational at Loyola in October."
Mayer says she has no immediate plans to follow her mother's footsteps as a marathon runner. Her mother competed in both the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials.
"We had posters around the house, but I probably didn't understand what it meant until I was in middle school," she says. "My career is really, really different. She was actually a soccer player and didn't start running until the end of college or graduate school. She has always been very athletic and a good role model. She eats healthy and always had us eating nutritional meals."
Mayer's family roots have also played a key role in her decision to enroll in the integrated science program at Northwestern.
"My dad works for the Environmental Protection Agency and we have always been very conscientious about the resources we use," she says. "The ISP program is a major in itself, but I also want to major in environmental science with a minor in environmental policy and culture. I want to be involved in the Green Movement. I know everyone says it, but I want to make a difference in the world."
Right now, Mayer is just hoping to make a difference for the Northwestern women's cross country program. Dormant for a 10-year period (through 1997), the Wildcats have not finished higher than 10th in the past six Big Ten Championships. The Wildcats have only had one All-Big Ten runner (Rachel Evjen in 2001) in their history.
"I'm not very familiar with the history; I just knew I wasn't coming to a powerhouse like Wisconsin," she says. "But you never know what's going to happen. Coach Likhite told me se wanted me to be part of building something new. That's exciting to me."