Oct. 24, 2007
by Jeff Smith
It was Valentine's Day 2006 and Rita Arndt-Molis was looking for someone special. She traveled more than two hours to find this person to talk to and one who would listen to what she had to say. She wasn't necessarily looking for a commitment right then and there, but she was hoping that the significant amount of interest she had in this person would be reciprocated. She left with a sense that the feelings were mutual and soon called her husband Tim to break the news. She believed she had just found a person who fit the mold of exactly what the Michigan State women's cross country program was looking for.
Arndt-Molis, the program's associate head coach, had just finished meeting with Alissa McKaig and her family in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. It was a productive meeting, but one in which Arndt-Molis ended without leaving a full scholarship on the table. She wanted McKaig, who was looking to transfer from Baylor, to make an investment in Michigan State, just as much as they were willing to make with her.
"I walked away thinking this girl is going to make our team better in a lot of different ways and would be an integral part in our program's vision," Arndt-Molis said. "A couple of weeks later, she told me at a meet that she was coming to Michigan State."
Arndt-Molis had a pulse on McKaig's mindset since talking with her Concordia Lutheran High School coach Brad Peterson. In talking with him, Arndt-Molis felt that maybe McKaig's first season at Baylor wasn't at all what she thought it would be. Both Arndt-Molis and Peterson had similar coaching philosophies, which helped bring MSU into the picture. At that time, Michelle Rafferty, a product of Carmel High School in Indianapolis, was currently having success running under Arndt-Molis' leadership in East Lansing.
"I was lucky enough to have inherited Michelle Rafferty, who was running well here on the team," said the Spartan coach. "Alissa ran better than Michelle in high school, but it was the other way around in college."
That soon changed when McKaig made the decision to transfer.
In her first year with the Spartans, McKaig experienced a great deal of success throughout the season, ending with top-10 honors at the NCAA Championships and USTFCCCA Academic All-America accolades. Part of the reason for the success was the fact that McKaig was in a new environment with no pre-conceived notions.
"It was like she was a freshman all over again," Arndt-Molis said. "She just went out there and tested herself."
McKaig opened her tenure at Michigan State with a first-place victory at the 5K Jeff Drenth Memorial with a time of 17:10.0. She repeated that performance in the next event at the Spartan Invitational (21:39). In the two weeks following, she recorded top-six finishes at two prestigious national events. McKaig was fourth at the Roy Griak Invitational (21:18.1) and sixth at the Pre-NCAA Meet (20:28.1). She continued her dominant rookie season with the Spartans by finishing fourth at the Big Ten Championships (20:42), second at the Great Lakes Regional (21:00.26) and 10th at the NCAA Championships (21:06.7).
"Last year was a little surprising," McKaig admits. "I came in not knowing what to expect. Everything was so new to me; I didn't know who people were. To finish top 10 in every race was fun."
McKaig notes that her junior season has been much tougher on her now that she has expectations and goals to meet. She says that often it can be frustrating trying to focus on not getting frustrated. That process has been one of the main goals for McKaig and her coach this season.
"It has been a conscious decision for her," Arndt-Molis said, "but most runners are in the same situation. It's fun to go out and just do it, but the next season, you tend to look back and see what you did last year. These athletes are purpose driven, goal driven, and type-A personalities."
So far this season, McKaig has not been too far off from her progress last year. She successfully defended her title at the Jeff Drenth Memorial (17:37), finished second in the Spartan Invitational (20:57), 11th at the Griak (21:46) and most recently ninth at Pre-NCAAs (20:35). This Sunday, McKaig will help lead her seventh-ranked Spartans into Columbus, Ohio for the Big Ten Championships.
"We are going to be out there fighting. All the teams (in the conference) are really close," McKaig said. "I think Michigan and us are very closely matched, but then you have Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Everyone on our team is excited and we have been talking about it since the start of the season."
It seems McKaig is one who has remained motivated throughout the season to help lead her team its third Big Ten title. The Spartans captured the first official Big Ten women's championship in any sport back in the fall of 1981 and then regained the crown 20 years later in 2001. In fact, McKaig has been so determined to be successful at MSU, Arndt-Molis has been forced to slow her down at times.
"She is so motivated and willing to push herself, but she wants to go at it and be all-out, which causes us to have to pull back the reigns," said Arndt-Molis. "We even put her on a heart monitor because she likes to train hard and outwork the competition. She has to understand that rest is part of the equation. She trains like the devil and is tough to beat, but she just has to give herself a break sometimes."
Described as an "appropriately spoken" leader, Arndt-Molis also touts her transfer prospect as a great leader who sets the example and reinforces it. They are qualities that could help McKaig one day find a career in collegiate coaching.
"I'm taking some pre-requisites for physician assistant's school, but I think I would enjoy coaching some day," said McKaig. "On the way to camp this year, I rode up with Rita in her car and we talked a little about it. She has been a great resource for me when it comes to learning more about what it takes to be a coach."
McKaig said the two "clicked right away" when she welcomed her future Spartan mentor into her family's home on Valentine's Day. And while she admits that her time at Baylor was still the right decision at the right time in her life, she notes that now she is only two hours away from home and can spend much more time with her family. During off weekends at Michigan State, she enjoys coming home and watching her younger brother participate in sports.
Without question, McKaig is reaping the benefits of the transfer. She has not only improved her technique and time, but has also worked to find a balance between life, running and schoolwork.
And it is that that has made Arndt-Molis' 2006 Valentine so special.
"Alissa is really the model of an ideal student-athlete," she said. "She's not perfect, but she is darn close."