Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
PELLA, IOWA—For the first time since the Carter administration, the Central College men’s cross country team is heading to the NCAA Division III national championship meet.
Central finished second at the Central Region championship Saturday in Northfield, Minn. and automatically qualified for the 32-team field that will compete next Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind. The top two teams from each of eight regions earned an automatic bid to the national meet.
The 8,000-meter race will be staged at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course at 11 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time). Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Ind.) is the host school.
Saturday’s regional meet featured three nationally-ranked teams. Central was rated No. 22, with host St. Olaf (Minn.) coming in at No. 29 and Loras at No. 35. The Oles bounced back from two regular season losses to the Dutch with a narrow 70-75 victory, despite a faster average time for the Central runners.
“Whenever you go from the conference to the regional meet it is a step up in quality,” said coach Joe Dunham. “Even though we didn’t win, it was encouraging to see how they responded to that high level of competition.”
Luther was also awarded an at-large bid out of the Central Region.
“It was nice to get the automatic berth and not have to worry about getting in,” said Dunham.
While this is Central’s first national team appearance in 32 years, it’s the second consecutive for Eli Horton (sophomore, Runnells, Southeast Polk HS). Horton earned an individual bid in 2011 and was the nation’s top freshman with a 52nd-place finish.
Horton, along with Cole Decker (freshman, Des Moines, West Des Moines Dowling HS), Drew Jackson (sophomore, Johnston), and Austin O’Brien (junior, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley HS) have built strong resumes this fall, earning both all-Iowa Conference and all-Central Region honors, and Brent Ewing (junior, Cincinnati, Centerville HS) took all-region honors. Sloan Beninga (freshman, Stout, Dike-New Hartford HS) and Cody Doughan (junior, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley HS) round out the Dutch squad.
“This meet will be a big challenge for a young team,” said Dunham. “But they’ve shown all year long that they belong there.”
Runners that finish in the top 35 Saturday will attain all-American status.
“Every one of our guys wants to be an all-American,” said Dunham. “And they should. I think we’re certainly capable of having multiple runners in contention for that this weekend.”
Reaching the national meet is another milestone in what has been a quick rise to prominence for a young Dutch squad. Central also won a league title for the first time in program history Oct. 13.
“This meet is the pinnacle of the sport,” said Dunham. “We’ll be among a pretty select group of programs around the country. And our goal is to get back here every year.”
The Dutch also gained ground in the national rankings, moving up one spot to No. 21 in the final coaches’ poll produced by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.