Most Northwestern students will never see Ava Earl run.
It’s the life of a Big Ten cross country runner — in a sport that often takes place in large parks or on winding trails, fans can’t exactly tailgate and gather in the student section.
During the biggest race of this past season, even Northwestern head coach Jill Miller had to get creative after finding a spot along the course at the 2022 NCAA Midwest Regional in Missouri.
“I wanted them to be able to hear me during the race, but by the time they crossed the finish line, I was stuck in a random field by myself,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it back in time, so I saw the finish on my phone.”
It’s much easier to watch Earl, a sophomore in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, in her other life as a rock star. By the time she graduated from high school, the Alaska native had released three albums and opened for singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers. Fans can listen to the single “Mountain Song” from her third album “The Roses,” which just hit 100,000 plays on Spotify and made the website’s Fresh Folk playlist.
But back on that freezing day in Missouri, Earl also helped Northwestern reach the NCAA Cross Country Championships for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I still have chills thinking about it,” she said. “I remember being in the tent at the end of the race, we were crying and hugging each other. I think that was my favorite part of the season. Just realizing, ‘Oh shoot, we’re going to nationals.’ We understood how historic it really was.”
Northwestern last sent a cross country team to the championship in 2000, so the Wildcats weren’t exactly on the radar for most high school runners from Alaska.
Miller said the Wildcats cast a “wide net” in their search for talented student-athletes, with runners from five different countries and 11 states on the team roster.
“We were joking around with Ava the other day about how hard it was to get to know someone during the recruiting process,” Miller said. “She asked me, ‘For sure you thought I was funny, right?’ and I had to tell her ‘No.’ It’s just hard on Zoom to understand someone’s personality, or as Ava would say, their vibe.”
Before she arrived in Evanston, Earl had released three albums and got her big break in 2017 when she met and opened for Maggie Rogers at a show in Anchorage. The “Light On” and “Alaska” singer-songwriter invited hopeful local musicians to send her their demos.
Rogers chose Earl to perform.
“I was planning to go to that show before I even submitted some of my songs,” Earl said. “My mom thinks she chose me because we come from the same folk background. I remember she was very cool and level-headed.”