In the past two years the Lewis-Clark State College men’s cross country team has finished worse at the national tournament than their final season ranking, placing No. 22 both times. Two weeks ago the women’s team could not match the race put together by conference champion Carroll, forcing LC to hang by a thread and earn the last at-large bid to nationals.
With the aforementioned factors as motivation, the LCSC men’s and women’s cross country teams are prepared for the challenge of nationals. The Warriors will race on the same course as last year, when the women placed 15th and the men placed 22nd.
Both teams are looking for some redemption on Saturday when they take part in the NAIA National Cross Country Meet in
The women’s 5-kilometer race involves 32 teams, including 24 conference/independent champions, and 111 individual qualifiers. California State-San Marcos returns to defend its title, while on the men’s side, Malone of Ohio is seeking its fourth straight national title. The 8-kilometer men’s race involves 32 teams, including 23 conference/independent champions, and 109 individual qualifiers.
The LC men have been looking forward to this race for a year, seeking to avenge their disappointment from last year and realizing that the window for this group to perform well at nationals is closing.
“For five guys this will be their last race ever,” LC coach Mike Collins said. “The focus has been really good with this race in mind.”
The men, who are generally rested and healthy, will be led by Frontier Conference Runner of the Year, sophomore Dave Marks. Joining Marks are the five athletes who will compete for the last time together, seniors Chris McConnell and Jake Miller, and juniors Grant Eldridge, Fernando Esperanza and Mickael Testa. Rounding out the national team is freshman Hayden Randall.
“This is a mature and experienced group,” Collins said. “We have a shot at earning the highest placing we’ve ever had (18th, 2007). Our goal is to finish in the Top 10.”
The LC women ran well at nationals last year, placing 15th after entering the race ranked No. 16 in the final regular season poll. This year’s story so far is a little different, as the women’s team is currently ranked 20th but did not capture the conference title for the first time in four years.
“We feel fortunate that we got in [to nationals],” Collins said. “Our motivation is to not have to savor the flavor of losing to Carroll at the conference championships. We want to end the year on top of the Frontier Conference.”
Junior Kelsey Klettke, who earned conference Runner of the Year and a national runner of the week honor this season, leads the charge for the Warrior women. Klettke is joined by senior Jessie Gulsvig, juniors Madison Randall and Stephanie Shuel, sophomores Chelsey Leighton and Amanda Palmer, and freshman Shaelie Edwards.
Collins noted that their No. 20 ranking does not indicate that this year’s women are inferior to last year’s team, but that the competition is tougher and finishing 20th at nationals would be satisfactory.
“This is the best [women’s] national field I have ever seen,” Collins said. “We are ranked No. 20 and this year’s team is better our 2002 team that finished ninth.”
The talent level and competitiveness among the 32 best teams in the country does not differ much. The separation at the national championships comes down to which team races best on that course on that day.
“The course was a frenzy,” Collins said of last year’s national championship race. “It was muddy, slick and nasty.”
The women raced after the men last year, allowing them to observe and get tips from the men’s team on the best approach to combat the messy conditions. Yet it was not just shoes sticking in the mud that caused problems, but the difficulty of the course itself.
“Last year we didn’t prepare very well for that course,” Collins said. “It is constantly turning and forcing you to change tempo. Only the first two or three minutes of the race allow you to get a rhythm, and after that it is constant change.”
The past three weeks the teams have put special effort into reducing the frenzy at this year’s national meet, by training to maintain speed despite the constant change of the course.
On Saturday the Warriors will rely on their added training and preparation for the course, their All-American hopefuls Marks and Klettke, and their motivation for redemption from the disappointments of past weeks and years.
The is the 10th straight year the Warrior women have qualified for the meet and the fifth straight year for the men’s team, which has sent an individual runner or a team to the meet for eight straight seasons.