Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
PELLA—The Central College men’s cross country team starts this season where it finished last season, with its Iowa Conference championship team intact. The Dutch, led by fifth-year head coach Joe Dunham, return the top five varsity runners from last season.
“The biggest thing we need to focus on is to stay healthy,” Dunham said. “We need to do the right things, not try to do too much and run within ourselves. We had never won a conference championship before and winning fueled our fire. We need to stay hungry, we need to take care of business and have a larger sense of urgency now than there ever has been before.”
The Dutch ran away with the conference crown with runners finishing 1-2-3 at the championship. Central posted the lowest point total (33) of any team at the championship since 2009, 17 points ahead of runner-up Loras.
Following the historical conference performance, the Dutch finished second at the NCAA Division III Central Regional, five points behind champion St. Olaf (Minn.) to earn their first team berth in the national meet since 1980.
In the NCAA Division III Championship at Terre Haute, Ind., Central finished in a tie for 12th place with Williams (Mass.), two places ahead of St. Olaf.
“I was pleased with the way the year went last season,” said Dunham. “I could not be more proud of our team. Watching how the men dealt with running at the national meet for the first time was great; we did not have that experience before. We have done it now, we understand what to expect and we are ready for it this year. The experience is definitely an advantage.”
The Dutch are determined to improve on last season, but other teams are determined, too.
“Winning the regional meet is definitely a goal for our team this season, but St. Olaf returns all five starters, as well,” Dunham said. “Even though we return almost everybody from a solid team last year, teams are getting better. We need a sense of urgency to get better, too.”
Central graduated five runners from last year’s roster, but return the top three runners in the conference.
Junior Eli Horton was a four-time conference-runner of the week, earned MVP honors with a first-place finish at the league championship meet and finished 29th at the NCAA championship. Sophomore Cole Decker was the second-place finisher for the Dutch in every meet, including the conference championship. Junior Drew Jackson rounded out the top three with his finish at the conference meet.
“Drew arguably finished the track season last spring stronger than any runner at Central,” said Dunham. “His performance at the Iowa Conference outdoor championships was incredible and there is no doubt in my mind that he will bring that type of mental toughness to the table this fall.
“The development of this distance program all started with great leadership back when I first arrived in Andrew Hammer, Brandon Clough and the guys that came before us. Those teams established a great legacy and great leadership. Our younger guys that are now juniors and seniors know what to do. They have the model from previous classes.”
In addition to the top three, Dunham is excited about the leadership by the two team-chosen captains. Seniors Austin O’Brien and Michael Splavec are the captains, and they have plenty of support from other seniors Brent Ewing and Cody Doughan and junior Tim Shepherd.
“We have great leadership on this team from Jackson, Horton, Ewing, O’Brien, Doughan; they have been here and done it,” Dunham said. “It is not necessarily one person. O’Brien and Splavec are our captains and care deeply for the program moving forward. I could not be happier with the two men our team selected. Everybody is buying into the culture and learning that it feels pretty good to win.
“Doughan has been a great contributor for four years. His mileage is up this summer and he will be fighting for a spot. Ewing is coming back from injury and has the potential for a huge senior year, as does Jackson. Shepherd is a workhorse and will be a significant contributor in our success, as well.”
O’Brien and Ewing finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the conference meet.
In addition to the multitude of returners, Central landed seven incoming freshmen, including a two-mile top finisher at the Drake Relays in Issac Steffensmeier of St. Paul, Iowa. Sophomore Kyle Nuehring returns with a greater understanding of the sport and transfer junior Jaime Vander Veer of Knoxville, Iowa, has the opportunity to impact the team. Junior L.J. Lipscomb is returning to the sport and joining the team, as well.
“I am excited about Steffensmeier,” said Dunham. “He adds depth to our program and you will hear about him over the next four years. I am also excited about Nuehring. Cross country was a bit of a transition for him last year, as he adjusted to the higher miles and the demands of an 8K. He has the opportunity to surprise some people. Vander Veer is transferring back, as well, and is also very talented. Lipscomb has extreme talent, but will be running cross country for the first time since high school.”
Academically, the men’s cross country team honored Decker, Ewing and Jackson. The trio earned U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association academic recognition for placing in the top 35 at the NCAA regional championship and having a cumulative grade point average of 3.3 or better.
Decker is an economics major with a 3.48 GPA, Ewing is an exercise science major with a 3.66 GPA and Jackson is an environmental science major with a 3.6 GPA.
The Dutch run in four invitational meets and the conference championships prior to the NCAA regional and championship. The regular season starts and finishes in Pella, with the Central Dutch Invitational on Sept. 7 and the conference meet on Nov. 2. The schedule is set up for the Dutch to run once every two weeks.
“Having the Iowa Conference meet in Pella is definitely an advantage,” Dunham said. “There is a lot of pressure on our team and we want to win, so it will be nice to sleep in our own beds. We have a long trip two weeks later to St. Olaf, but it will be nice to compete there (on Sept. 21) before the NCAA regional. We are also running in a meet that we have not competed at before in Eau Claire, Wis. They hosted the NCAA Championships in the past and being a different course, I think it will be a new experience for our program. We also run at Wis.-LaCrosse, one of the top programs in the nation. It will be an opportunity to gauge ourselves on the national stage. I like our schedule and the way it is set up. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Although it is tempting to look ahead at the NCAA meets, Dunham said the team is focused on the Iowa Conference, first and foremost.
“The Iowa Conference is a very tough and loaded conference,” said Dunham. “The conference title had eluded Central for the entire history of our program until last season. It will be very difficult to repeat. Luther, Loras and Wartburg are at the top and Simpson and other teams are improving. It is going to be a huge challenge, but we are prepared to put in the work and focus on our conference.”
Dunham is assisted by associate head coach Stephen Fyfe and assistant coach Jonathan Graupmann. Fyfe, a 15-year veteran of the cross country coaching staff who has twice served as interim head coach, works most closely with the women’s team. Graupmann is new to the program this season, but brings strong credentials.
“The special thing about our staff is that we try to have an impact on all of the runners,” Dunham said. “Stephen provides great support for the men. Jon has a lot of knowledge and experience from coaching across the country. Anytime you have three coaches for a cross country program, it is an awesome thing. I feel blessed and am excited about our support structure.”
Dunham notes that other support staff members make winning championships possible.
“Our athletic trainer, Shelli Green, does so much for our men and women to keep us healthy,” said Dunham. “She is so devoted to our team and is passionate about our program. We are lucky to have an athletic trainer that cares about our runners and our program as much as she does.”
The Central men’s cross country open the season at No. 7 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) preseason coaches Division III poll. It is the program’s highest ranking ever. The Dutch are No. 1 in the Central Region rankings, as well.
The Dutch open the season by hosting the Central Dutch Invitational on Sept. 7.