Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
PELLA—The No. 10-ranked Central College men’s cross country team is a top contender in Saturday’s NCAA Division III Central Region championship at Northfield, Minn., but has aspirations beyond this weekend.
The Iowa Conference champion Dutch men are bidding for a second straight trip to the NCAA Division III national meet, staged Nov. 23 in Hanover, Ind. Central tied for 12th nationally last year, the top finish in school history. The top two teams in each of eight regional meets Saturday receive automatic bids to the 32-team Division III Championships, with 16 at-large bids also up for grabs. The Central Region spans seven states: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Meanwhile, the Central women, who finished 12th at last year’s regional meet and placed fourth at the conference meet Nov. 2 at Pella, are eyeing a top-10 regional finish, according to coach Joe Dunham.
Start time for the 6,000-meter women’s race is 11 a.m. at Tostrud Athletic Center, with the 8,000-meter men’s race set for 12:15 p.m.
The two Central teams boast experience on the St. Olaf course, as it was also the site of last year’s regional meet and the St. Olaf Invitational Sept. 21. The men finished seventh of 16 teams at this year’s early fall invitational—running at less than full strength—while the women finished 11th of 15.
Central men not content with contending—The Dutch are no longer content with being a top contender in the 27-team, 270-individual field. Central is arguably at full strength and healthy for the first time this season with its sights set on the only team to best it at last year’s regional.
“It’s the first time our team has been completely ready to go,” Dunham said. “We haven’t run the perfect race yet, but I’m hoping that we can get up there, run a great race and let the chips fall where they lay. Winning the regional is our goal, but our first and foremost priority is to qualify for the national meet.”
The No. 10 men are projected to finish behind No. 3-ranked host St. Olaf (Minn.), rated No. 1 in the region. Last season Central was ranked No. 1 in the region, but was edged by the No. 2-ranked Oles by five points (70-75). The Dutch are hoping to return the favor Saturday.
“The men are extremely focused,” said Dunham. “Their goal is to be regional champions, but that’s no small task. St. Olaf has improved dramatically and there are a lot of good teams in the Central Region.”
Central went on to finish one spot ahead of St. Olaf at last year’s national meet, but the Oles boast another powerful lineup, capturing their second consecutive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) championship Nov. 2. Junior Grant Wintheiser is out to defend his individual regional title from last year’s runner-up, Central’s Eli Horton (junior, Altoona, Southeast Polk HS), who finished less than 10 seconds behind.
Both teams will be fending off Iowa Conference runner-up Loras and third-place Luther, ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in the region, respectively. The men’s Central Region field includes five of the top 33 ranked teams in Division III.
League champs—Central captured its second consecutive conference title Nov. 2 after a 49-year wait for its first last season. Senior Austin O’Brien (Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley HS), who was a distant 21st in last year's regional meet, led the Dutch to another 1-2-3 individual finish on its home course en route to 31 team points. O’Brien ran a personal-best time of 24:46.8 to outduel Horton, last year’s champ. Sophomore Cole Decker (Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) was third at 25:12.5, while Drew Jackson (junior, Johnston) and Isaac Steffensmeier (freshman, St. Paul, Fort Madison HS) finished 10th and 15th, respectively.
O’Brien was named league MVP.
“Austin was a big question mark coming into this season,” Dunham said. “I knew he was running and training (while he was studying abroad) and he had always been an in-the-mix varsity runner, but never a front runner. He is certainly a great surprise. We needed him to step up and he’s done just that. It’s been a great way for him to end his Central career.
“It was great running the conference meet on our home course in front of a large crowd. We are excited to represent the Iowa Conference and Central College to the best of our ability.”
Despite taking the league crown by 22 points over No. 28-ranked Loras, Central slipped one spot to No. 10 in the USTFCCCA Division III poll entering the regional meets.
“It’s a different story when you add in great teams from around the region,” said Dunham. “Being in a large race with a lot of front runners certainly plays to our advantage. Eli’s goal is to win the meet. Austin’s goal is to win the meet. Cole’s goal is to win the meet. It’s nice to have a number of guys that are capable of winning on any given day. But first and foremost they are concerned with how the team does. It’s an individualized sport, but we’ve captured a culture that is focused on the team aspect and hopefully that will help us extend our season after this weekend.”
At-large team selections—The 16 at-large teams for the national meet are selected by the NCAA track and field subcommittee, with the primary qualifying criteria being regional finish. There is no cap on how many at-large teams may be selected from any given region. After teams have been determined, 56 additional individuals are selected to compete at the championships, with the top seven finishers at each regional as automatic qualifiers.
Pack-running Dutch women may surprise—Although it is a tall order, the Dutch may surprise some people in the 27-team, 270-individual field. Central finished fourth in the Iowa Conference behind No. 3-ranked regional favorite Wartburg, Loras and Luther. The latter two schools are regionally ranked at Nos. 5 and 7, respectively.
Last season the Dutch finished 12th in the 28-team field with 345 points. Emma Nelson (senior, Hedrick, Pekin HS) is Central’s top returning finisher in 64th at 24:24.8, with Alyssa Eaves (junior, Johnston) in 80th at 24:43.1.
At this year’s conference meet Eaves received all-league recognition with a 13th-place, 23:58.6 finish on Central’s home course. The Dutch demonstrated that they are a pack-running team, as Kasey Wiedmaier (freshman, Indianola), Gabi Wilson (freshman, Clive, Des Moines Christian HS), Daphne Baumgartner (senior, Perry) and Nelson finished 20th, 22nd, 25th and 30th, respectively. While the strategy is often less competitive at a smaller meet, it may pay big dividends at the larger regional.
“Pack running certainly has an advantage in larger meets,” said Dunham. “Hopefully our pack can be run with Alyssa and narrow the scoring gap. If that happens, anything can happen. There are years where teams shock everyone, which is why the regional environment is unique and exciting. It’s very volatile. The women have improved this season and I’m excited for them. They’re ready to surprise some people.”
This year’s meet contains five of the top 33 teams in the nation.
“We want to finish in the top 10 and push the top teams,” Dunham said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s certainly doable. There are a lot of teams that run really well at championships and we need to figure out how to be one of those teams at the regional.”