Amy Davis photo

Former Madison Edgewood star Amy Davis has learned how to race from within the pack at UW.

MURRAY SCHUKAR

When Amy Davis hears Mick Byrne say University of Wisconsin cross country runners have a green light for Friday’s Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, the meaning is pretty clear.

“Just see how fast we can go,” Davis said.

There’s excitement from Davis, a redshirt sophomore from Madison Edgewood, and from Byrne, the UW director of cross country and track and field, on where that could leave the Badgers in their spotlight meet at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course.

“A lot of the races building up to it is us learning the races to learn about pace and how to run in groups and packs,” Davis said. “But I think for this meet, they’re just like, ‘let’s just go see what you guys have.’ ”

Davis is taking a renewed sense of confidence into the 6,000-meter Nuttycombe women’s meet, which leads into the Oct. 29 Big Ten Conference championships and NCAA races in November.

Sixteen teams ranked by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association are in the 33-team women’s field. On the men’s side, there are 20 ranked schools among the 35 scheduled to compete on the 8,000-meter course adjacent to University Ridge Golf Course.

The UW women are ranked 17th and have a level-headed attitude that has served them well in races this season, Davis said.

That sense of calm has been important to her development as a runner.

Davis won the WIAA Division 2 individual state title as a senior at Edgewood in 2014 but had to adjust to deeper competition in college.

“I’ve come from where I didn’t know how to race, as in I didn’t know what it was like to be in a pack,” Davis said. “Because in high school, I feel like a lot of girls and even male runners, they go from being in the front all the time to being in the middle (in college).”

She credited Badgers assistant coach Jill Miller for some immersion therapy to battle the trepidation associated with running in the pack.

In workouts, Miller put Davis at the back of the group and taught her how to work her way through it.

“Jill has helped me develop being strong at the end of a race,” Davis said. “I used to be fearful of being in the back, thinking that I couldn’t get to the finish. But now I feel like I’m not so scared to be in the back of the pack because I know that I have the strength to make it through.”

Byrne said he and Miller had some worries about team strategy two-thirds of the way through the Sept. 30 Greater Louisville Classic when UW’s runners appeared to have been consumed by the pack.

How they powered through the field in the final stretch of the 5K race was “incredible,” Byrne said.

Davis pushed her way up to 11th place, with senior Sarah Disanza right behind and freshman Alicia Monson taking 20th.

The time of 16 minutes, 53.68 seconds was Davis’ best of the season, bettering the 17:39.9 that won the Indiana University Open on Sept. 2 and setting her up for a good run on Friday.

“Amy is in incredible shape right now,” Byrne said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she finishes inside the top five or six.”

On the men’s side, the 28th-ranked Badgers were grappling with whether to use a redshirt season for senior Morgan McDonald, who hasn’t run for the program after competing in the IAAF World Championships over the summer.

A talented freshman class that includes former Madison La Follette athlete Finn Gessner has been given a chance to make an impression.

“We warned our freshmen on the guys side that their world was going to get rocked, stepping up to that 8K (distance),” Byrne said, “and it looks like that’s what happened.”

For Davis and the UW women, the Nuttycombe meet is a low-pressure steppingstone to the championship season.

With the green light given from the coaching staff, they’ll try to further the in-race support system that has kept them connected.

“It’s not about beating teammates, it’s about helping teammates,” Davis said. “I think that’s what we’ve learned throughout these races.

“We’ve learned how to work together and we’ve learned how to feed off each other’s energy. And we’ve learned how to pull people along.”

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.