Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
2014 Iowa Conference finish: second place
2014 NCAA Division III Central Regional finish: third place
2014 NCAA Division III championships finish: 11th place
Starters lost: 3 (Eli Horton, Timothy Shepherd, Jamie Vander Veer)
Starters returning: 4 (Cole Decker, Mark Fairley, Tanner Rathje, Isaac Steffensmeier)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 6/10
Relying on two seniors and a talented crop of underclassmen, the Central College men’s cross country program looks to regain the top spot in the Iowa Conference this season.
For the first time in his seven-year tenure at Central, men’s cross country coach Joe Dunham will have to replace over half of his starting lineup due to the graduation of the most decorated class in school history. Headlined by three-time All-American Eli Horton, last year’s senior class won Central’s only two conference crowns in the sport and also made three trips to the NCAA Division III Championships, placing 11th in the U.S. last fall.
“Those guys in their four years they were here really changed the entire face of distance running at Central College,” Dunham said. “They established a culture and a way of thinking. It was a lot of fun and we’ll miss those guys.”
Despite losing five talented seniors from that class, several key cogs from last season remain. A deep pool of talent in last year’s freshman class will need to step up as sophomores to keep Central in the thick of the conference race.
“We’re excited for the new challenge,” Dunham said. “We’re a very young team this year. Last year was one of our best recruiting classes and we’re excited to see what they can do having been in the program for a year now. We’ll hopefully see some great improvements there.”
Late-season injuries prevented the Dutch from winning a third conference title last November. Simply being able to stay healthy could make the difference for this year’s team and a coach with the loftiest of expectations.
“Everybody looks at how high we finished last year at the national meet and from a distance it looks great, but we were extremely disappointed,” Dunham said. “We were not at full strength when Drew Jackson couldn’t run at the end of the season, and it completely changed who we were as a team. We have to stay healthy and keep our confidence up this season.”
Only three of Central’s top seven runners from last season return for the 2015 campaign. With the departure of Horton, senior Cole Decker takes the reigns as the top runner in the program. After finishing second in the league as a freshman and third as a sophomore, Decker won the conference title last year, finishing the 8,000-meter course in 25:03.0. A win this year would make him the first repeat champion since Cornell’s Andrew Tobben in 2009 and 2010.
“The end of the season for Cole last year couldn’t have gone any better,” Dunham said. “Then he ran phenomenal in outdoor track in the spring and earned All-American status in the 10,000. He showed that he’s one of the best runners in the country. He knows his role is as a frontrunner for us now and I think he will be.”
After opening the season with a first-place finish at the Central Invitational (25:43.2) and a fourth-place finish at the Gil Dodds Invitational at Wheaton (Ill.) College (25:21), junior Isaac Steffensmeier struggled down the stretch. But with a new approach in summer training, Dunham believes he will keep improving all the way into November.
“Isaac is one of those guys that we’ve actually slowed down in his training this summer,” Dunham said. “He probably put in too many miles last summer and maybe got a little overtrained. We’re changing the way he’s training over the summer and I think it will help in a big way.”
The top runner from last year’s freshman group was Mark Fairley. After starting a little slow, Fairley came on strong, running his best two races at the NCAA regional (25:36.1) and national (25:37.7) meets. Dunham is confident that with a solid summer of training, Fairley will make great strides.
“He’s got big goals and a lot of ability and talent,” Dunham said. “His goal is to be up there with Cole and Isaac. We’ll be depending on him and a lot of those sophomores this season.”
Fellow sophomore Tanner Rathje gained valuable experience in November by replacing the injured Jackson in the lineup for the regional and national meets. He ran a season-best time of 25:45.4 at the national meet and will look to improve upon a solid track season.
“He’s a great cross country runner,” Dunham said. “I have a lot faith in him and I believe that Tanner will be a major contributor for us this season."
Jon Specht’s freshman season was hindered by injuries which allowed him to compete in just three races. His best race a year ago was a 64th place finish at the Wis.-Eau Claire Blugold Inv. (26:45). Dunham has high hopes for Specht in his sophomore campaign.
“He’s making progress with his health,” he said. “He’s someone people will get to know if we can keep him healthy,”
Senior Kyle Nuehring has had a stellar track career at Central, but injuries have limited him on the cross country course. He could make an impact this year if he stays healthy.
“He’s been a force on the track as a middle distance runner,” Dunham said. “Dealing with some small injuries have prevented from him doing the things that he’s wanted to do in cross country. If he stays healthy, he can accomplish some great things.”
A wealth of unproven talent is available to provide additional options. Juniors Kyle Schelling and Karl Weaver both earned varsity letters as sophomores. A deep sophomore class features Jeremy Caracci, Taylor Donner, Nick Guzman, and Ben Stelk who are capable of making a push for varsity spots.
Another solid recruiting year sees five new runners join the program. Dunham is excited about their potential.
“The athletes in this class are very motivated,” Dunham said. “I love their attitudes and their desire to get better. We have freshmen that are going to be pushing for varsity spots this year. That excites me because that means things are still progressing.”
After opening the 2015 season by hosting the Central Invitational on September 5, the Dutch return to the St. Olaf (Minn.) Invitational on Sept. 19 for the fifth time in seven years. A trip to the Rim Rock Classic in Lawrence, Kansas on October 3 precedes the Wis.-Oshkosh AAE Invitational on October 17 in Winneconne, Wisconsin, the site of this year’s national meet. Central’s junior varsity will run in Dubuque at the Loras Invitational on October 16. The varsity will practice there in order to see the course that will also host the conference meet.
“We want to make sure that we see those courses,” Dunham said. “We want to make sure that the athletes are well prepared for those big races. We’re going to be facing a lot of tough teams with a lot of talent. We’re going to have to put forth our best effort to compete.”
At the conference meet in Dubuque, Central will look to win its third title in four years. And for the second year in a row, Central will host the NCAA Division III Central Regional at its highly regarded on-campus course in Pella. A top-three finish at that meet would send Central to a fourth straightCAA Division III Championship meet.
“First and foremost, we want to win the Iowa Conference meet,” Dunham said. “It was tough to lose it last year. We’ll focus on the conference championship first and then on qualifying for the national meet. Being on our home course should give us an advantage (at the regional) and we’ll hopefully use that advantage to qualify.”
Opened in 2004, Central’s on-campus course went through a redesign in 2013 that allows for a better spectator experience.
“I think we had a strong desire to make the course a little more fan-friendly, where people could get to different places easier,” Dunham said. “We’re one of very few programs in the entire region to have a cross country course on our campus and have a course specifically designed for cross country. We’re lucky to have the type of support that we’ve had from the athletics department.”