Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
2013 Iowa Conference finish: First place
2013 NCAA Division III Central Regional finish: Second place
2013 NCAA Division III championships finish: Sixth place
Starters lost: 3 (Cody Doughan, Brent Ewing, Austin O’Brien)
Starters returning: 6 (Cole Decker, Eli Horton, Drew Jackson, Timothy Shepherd, Isaac Steffensmeier, Jamie Vander Veer)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 9/7
2014 captains: Eli Horton, Drew Jackson
The Central College men’s cross country program is in no hurry to relinquish its place atop the Iowa Conference standings.
A year after capturing their first Iowa Conference championship in program history, the Dutch not only repeated as conference champion in 2013 but recorded their best-ever finish at the NCAA Division III championships with a sixth-place mark. Senior Eli Horton actually led the national field for much of the race, before taking over a program-best fourth-place individual finish.
With four all-conference and all-Central Region honorees returning, the Dutch have their sights set even higher in 2014.
“It’s really been amazing the type of work that our runners have put in,” said sixth-year coach Joe Dunham, who is quick to deflect any credit but nonetheless deserves much of it, as he has engineered Central’s remarkable rise to the national stage. “I’ve always said that cross country is a team effort and we get contributions from everyone down the lineup. The success that we have had starts with the athletes themselves. Our athletes put in their miles, train the right way and get the rest that they need.
“The leadership that we have had has also been outstanding. I think back to some of the leaders that we had when I first started six years ago and it’s those athletes who have been a big part of the success that we have had in terms of our recruiting and out on the course. It has been such a big team effort to get us to where we are now and I am happy to be a part of that.”
While NCAA contender status is an unspoken goal, claiming a third consecutive conference championship is the first priority.
“Our biggest goal every season is to win the Iowa Conference,” Dunham said. “To be able to win our first-ever Iowa Conference championship two years ago, let alone winning two consecutive, has been quite an accomplishment for this program.
“As a coaching staff, our initial goal when I started was to mold this program into one of the best distances programs in the Central region. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but when people think of quality Division III distance programs for both men and women, I want them to think of Central College.”
Despite not having the services of 2013 all-American and conference champion Austin O’Brien, the Dutch return six of the top nine from a year ago, including regional champion Eli Horton, a senior, and 2013 all-conference recipient Cole Decker, a junior.
A three-time all-Central Region and two-time all-America honoree, Horton won the 8,000-meter regional (24:35.97) after coming home second (24:50.3) at the league meet. He then bolted to a fourth-place finish at the national meet, the best individual showing in Central history.
“Eli had a great junior year, but I think he’s got as great a shot as anyone to win a national championship this year,” Dunham said. “I’m really excited to see what Eli can do this year. As one of our captains, he’s been a great leader to this team.”
Decker, who recently captured the 5,000-meter crown (15:06) at the 43rd Annual Midnight Madness Road Race in Ames in July, will also compete at the top-two spots.
“Cole is an athlete who continues to get better and that showed this summer with him winning the Midnight Madness race. Cole has an amazing amount of talent and an amazing work ethic.”
A two-time all-region and all-conference honoree, Decker finished third (25:12.5) at last year’s conference meet and 47th (25:31.9) at the national meet.
Senior Drew Jackson and sophomore Isaac Steffensmeier consistently ran in the fourth and fifth spots, respectively, in 2013.
Jackson, who finished in 10th place (25:56.9) at last year’s conference race to earn all-league honors, took home a 13th-place finish at the regional (25:28.77) and finished 87th (25:50.8) at the national championships. Like Decker, Jackson competed at the Midnight Madness race in July, finishing third (15:28).
“Drew has been a very consistent runner for us,” Dunham said. “He’s an incredible talent and gives 100% of his effort every time competes. Drew has been consistently one of our top cross country runners and middle distance athletes in track. He will also provide a lot of leadership for this team as he will be one of our captains this fall.”
Steffensmeier, an all-league and all-region honoree as well as a Team Newcomer Award recipient, emerged onto the scene in a big way last fall. As a freshman, he posted a career-best finish at the league championships, with a 15th-place finish (26:27.5) and ran his best 8,000-meter time (25:40) at the Wis.-Eau Claire Blugold Invitational in October.
“Isaac finished as one of our top five in every event he ran last year, with the exception of the national championship,” Dunham said. “He’s still only a sophomore, so his body has begun to adjust after his first season at the collegiate level and he is becoming accustomed to the longer distance. I’m really excited to see how far along he’s come after a good summer of training.
“As a freshman, Isaac ran one of the fastest 5Ks that I’ve ever had a freshman run on the track, so I’m excited to see what his sophomore year has in store for him.”
Dunham also spoke highly of key seniors Timothy Shepherd and Jamie Vander Veer.
“Both of these guys will play a vital role in how far this team goes this fall,” he said. “I feel we have one of the deepest teams in the entire country and these two veteran runners solidify that fact. I can say confidently that these two men were running as well as anyone on our team at the end of the track season last spring.
“Tim is coming off a runner-up finish in the steeple chase at the conference championships and Vander Veer posted a blazing time of 3:53.48 in 1,500-meter to also finish second at the conference championships. As a coach, it is hard not to get excited when you see performances like that. I can’t wait to see what they can do this fall.”
Central will also welcome 10 incoming freshmen, the most in Dunham’s six years with the Dutch.
“This is a great group that I think can contribute right away and it’s a group that I’m excited about,” Dunham said.
The Dutch will run in four invitationals between September and October in preparation for the league meet and NCAA Central regional in November.
New to the schedule this fall is the addition of the Gil Dodds Invitational at Wheaton (Ill.), which will grant the Dutch the opportunity to compete against out-of-region opponents.
“We’ve changed our schedule up a little bit this season for the first time in a few years,” Dunham said. “I think the biggest change we’ve made this season is that we’re going to the Wheaton-Gil Dodds Invitational instead of the St. Olaf Invitational. We decided that we wanted to go a little further east and see some teams out of our region and give both (men’s and women’s) teams the opportunity to see a different course and different competition.”
For the first time ever, the NCAA regional title will be determined on Central’s on-campus course. Consequently, Central’s traditional home opener Sept. 6 has morphed into the Dutch Invitational/Pre-Regional. “I think the pre-regional meet will be larger than it has been in the past, because of the fact that more teams are going to want to come down and see our course,” added Dunham. “I’m very excited to be able to bring the regional to Pella.”
Opened in 2004, Central’s on-campus course went through a redesign last year 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 ran the new format last year and it could not have gone better. We’re one of a 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.”