SARATOGA SPRINGS — If you follow Triple-A baseball, you’re familiar with the Toledo Mud Hens.
If you follow NCAA Division I cross country, you may not necessarily be familiar with the University of Toledo Rockets.
That could change someday. And if it does, Saratoga Springs High School senior Ella Kurto — who skipped through “quite a few” mud spots in Saratoga Spa State Park on Tuesday while finishing second to teammate Emily Bush in a dual meet — could be a big part of that.
The 2019 Section II Class A champion has made a verbal commitment to attend Toledo, of the Mid-American Conference.
The program doesn’t have a high profile, certainly not in comparison to traditional strongholds in the Power Five conferences. Expectations for the future are high, though, after the school hired Andrea Grove-McDonough to be the head coach in the summer of 2019, and convincing a runner of Kurto’s stature to join the team could be a sign of a program on the rise.
For Kurto’s part, it’s an opportunity to be on the ground floor of whatever development and progress Toledo makes in the next few years.
“It is, because I think the program is going someplace,” said Linda Kranick, the long-time co-coach at Saratoga with husband Art. “So it’s good to be in on it and be a part of bringing it to the top.”
“When I went over there to visit the team, I just felt very at home,” Kurto said. “I know the head coach, coach McDonough, is trying to build a solid team and get up there in the NCAAs, and I think I just really trusted that and wanted to be a part of that.
“I feel like every team that she’s touched, she’s had them up there in the NCAAs, and I just trust her and what she thinks is best.”
Kurto said her top three schools of choice came down to Toledo, Providence and Northeastern.
The Kranicks have sent at least one Saratoga graduate to a Division I school every year since Yola Strock chose the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. Besides Kurto, classmate Mackenzie Hart has made a verbal commitment to Wake Forest.
Linda Kranick gives an assist on Toledo being in the mix to former Saratoga star Nicole Blood Freitag, who is a cross country and track assistant coach at the University of Virginia and has crossed paths with Grove-McDonough.
She was hired by Toledo in the summer of 2019 after stops as the cross country head coach and track and field assistant at North Carolina for one season, Iowa State from 2013-18 and UConn from 2008-13. Grove-McDonough was an All-America 1,500-meter runner for the University of Minnesota in 1996.
The Kranicks met her when they were in Scotland with Kelsey Chmiel, who won the Great Edindburgh International XCountry Challenge there and is now at North Carolina State.
“We got the idea from Nicole Blood,” Linda Kranick said. “Our kids were looking around, and she said, ‘Try Toledo.’ And, actually, when we took Kelsey to Scotland for the race, Andrea was there with some Iowa State girls.
“I think Ella’s going to fit in very well, and they’re going to get some other good recruits and Andrea is a good coach. She’s energetic, she’s very positive. We spent time with her in Scotland, and she’s a good person.”
Kurto and her Blue Streaks team still have three 2021-22 seasons left and goals they want to achieve, of course, although one of the most important won’t be available, after the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in Portland, Oregon, was canceled because of the pandemic. NXN will hold nine regional meets across the country.
Running as Kinetic TC, the Saratoga team won NXN in 2019, and it’ll take another crack at the 4xMile national record (9:40.67) it set on July 2 at Nike Outdoor Nationals at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. Kurto teamed up with Bush and Mackenzie and Alycia Hart for that performance.
“We’re just getting started now, so [at] the end of the season, I think we have some things to prove here,” Kurto said. “And I’m a little sad that NXN got canceled this year, so we can’t reclaim our national title. It’s a team-oriented thing, which makes it special, and it still doesn’t feel real.
“I think we’re going to try it [4xMile record] during indoor, and then probably have a go for it again in outdoor and see what we can do.”