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Growing Northwestern cross country, one leader at a time

Coach Jill Miller empowers runners to take care of each other — knowing the results will follow
cross country jill miller
Earlier this month, Jill Miller (center) signed a multi-year contract extension as she prepares to begin her sixth season as coach of Northwestern cross country.

Looking back at the early days of her Northwestern tenure, cross country coach Jill Miller remembered a moment that might be familiar to anyone settling in a new job. Like a pinball machine, the bounces came fast — from all directions. With all the new responsibilities and challenges, she was in triage mode. But then she paused.

“I needed to just look up and see what was in front of me,” she said, referring to the athletic department’s infrastructure and student-athlete support system. “How can I optimize all that is at my fingertips here?”

Thanks to Northwestern’s “high-performance team” that includes a sports psychologist, athletic trainer, physician, nutritionist and strength coach, Miller said she benefits from being coached by many specialists.

“If you were once a great athlete, you probably had a great coach,” she said. “Then, if you become a coach, you sometimes lose that signal. I’m lucky to be surrounded by these people who can help make me better.”

Miller relies on that support system every day as she works to create a Northwestern cross country program that empowers and nurtures each student-athlete, which is one of the University’s priorities.

Since her arrival in 2019, it has been a program on the rise. In the past five years, the Wildcats have had their highest finish at the Big Ten Championships in 30 years, their highest Midwest Regional finish in 20 years and their first team NCAA qualification since 1985. Along the way, they broke several program records. They’ve also placed a runner in three consecutive NCAA championships.

Earlier this month, Miller signed a multi-year contract extension as she prepares to begin her sixth season at the helm.

In the meantime, the Wildcats will wind down the spring season with a trip to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track and field meet in the U.S.

A graduate of Wake Forest University, Miller ran four times in the NCAA Cross Country Championships. As a coach, with previous posts at Brown, William & Mary and Wisconsin, she has led her student-athletes to 25 All-American performances and 27 All-Region performances, with six teams that finished in the top 20 nationally.

In her time at Northwestern, she already has helped develop three All-Big Ten Conference honorees and nine United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Region selections.

“I can see how committed she is to creating a sustainable program,” said runner Kalea Bartolotto, who is finishing her fifth and final season on the team. “She truly believes that every woman that comes into our program has the power to make a difference — not only in our team score, but in the culture. She empowers all of us to be leaders.”

No one epitomizes leadership better than Bartolotto, who has earned multiple honors in her Northwestern career, including Midwest All-Region, Second-Team All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten.

Having taken the reins from Rachel McCardell, one of the best runners in Northwestern history, Bartolotto first proved herself during the COVID-19 pandemic. She organized weekly Zoom meetings to bring the team together, build cohesion, discuss team culture and set goals for the time when competition would be deemed safe again.

Her efforts solidified a foundation for the team and sense of community during a very isolating time, Miller said.

Over the remainder of her career, Bartolotto has remained a constant force for good and a role model. Last fall, with a place in the national championships on the line, she ran one of her best races but narrowly lost out to teammate Ava Earl for the final spot.

When it was over and the dust had settled, she didn’t sulk. Instead, she poured her energy into helping her teammate prepare for the big meet. Earl went on to finish 64th, the second-best championship placement in Northwestern history.

“I think at the end of the day, neither of us could have run any faster,” Earl said. “It was a weird and bittersweet situation, but I don’t think Kalea could have handled it any better. I was proud to represent our team, and she really flexed her coaching ability, if that’s something she wants to pursue later on. She’s an incredible role model to me and the entire team.”

This spring, Earl’s performance has been nothing short of historic. She broke a program record in the 5,000-meter run at the Raleigh Relays in North Carolina before following that up by setting a new mark in the 1,500-meter run in the Gary Wieneke Memorial in Champaign, Ill.

For Bartolotto, Earl and the rest of these Wildcats, what’s at stake is more than just fast times. Each year, Miller asks her new runners, “What do you want your legacy to be?”

And to Miller, that means how you reach your goals, rather than the goals themselves.

“I’d like to think that I help set a foundation for growth here,” Bartolotto said. “I want my legacy to be one that shows hard work, consistency and dedication can lead to good results. By listening to Coach Miller and having her push me, I’m ending my career here 10 times better than I ever could’ve imagined. I can’t wait to see what she does with this program going forward.”