Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
PELLA—The Central College men’s cross country team surprised some teams at last year’s NCAA Division III Championships with a 12th-place finish, but is viewed as a serious contender in Saturday’s 32-team meet at Hanover, Ind.
The Iowa Conference champion Dutch, ranked No. 8 in Division III, secured their second consecutive trip to Indiana with a runner-up finish at the NCAA Division III Central Region Championships Saturday at Northfield, Minn. Led by individual champion Eli Horton (junior, Runnells, Southeast Polk HS) in 24:35.97, Central finished 1-4-8-13-35 for a team score of 61 points, coming within 10 points of No. 3-ranked region host St. Olaf (Minn.). The Oles finished 2-3-6-18-22 to take the crown, but a more important prize awaits the Dutch, who are aiming for the first top-10 finish in school history.
The 8,000-meter race is set for 12:30 p.m. at L.S. Ayres Complex near the Hanover College campus.
“I was really pleased with the outcome at the regional,” coach Joe Dunham said. “We did not run the perfect race, but that makes this weekend all the more exciting. We have the potential to run faster and place higher.
“Cross country is like a lot of other sports in that you want to progress through the season and be running fast at the end of the year. We’re there. We are in a good position and hope to keep raising the bar this weekend.”
Last year the Dutch tied for 12th nationally at the NCAA meet in Terre Haute, Ind., the top finish in school history. Horton received all-America recognition after placing 29th in the elite field, running the 8,000-meter course in 25:02, four seconds off his then-career best. He was Central’s third men’s cross country all-America honoree (Jerry Fitzsimmons, 18th, 1979; Andy Goodman, 21st, 1994). It is Horton’s third consecutive appearance at the NCAA meet after qualifying as an individual and placing 52nd as a freshman in 2011.
“Eli hit his stride and ran really well,” said Dunham. “He has battled injuries all season and it’s a big lift to have him back in our lineup.”
The biggest surprise of the 2013 season has been Austin O’Brien (senior, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley HS), who studied abroad this past spring and returned to have his most successful season to date. O’Brien finished fourth at the regional in 24:51.12, less than 16 seconds back of first. The conference individual champion—who bested 2012 conference champion teammate Horton by less than four seconds—was Central’s No. 4 runner in all three postseason meets last year.
“Austin ran an excellent race,” Dunham said. “He eclipsed 25 minutes on a difficult course. He was excited to see his teammate win a championship. It’s fun when you have a lot of guys up top and pushing each other. Depth is playing in our favor.”
Cole Decker (sophomore, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) continues to be the standard for consistency after an eighth-place finish at the regional. Since joining the Dutch squad last year, Decker has been Central’s No. 2 or No. 3 finisher in every meet. In the 2012 NCAA meet he shattered his career-best time by nearly 30 seconds en route to 40th place. He was part of two 1-2-3 individual conference finishes for Central, placing second at last year’s meet and third in 2013.
“Even when Cole feels like he does not run well, he does,” said Dunham. “He’s very tough and mentally in tune with running the race. The success of this team has a lot to do with Cole. He’s in the top echelon of distance runners to come out of the state of Iowa and he can do some special things. He will definitely be in the mix at the national meet.”
Drew Jackson (junior, Johnston) put the Dutch in contention for the 2013 Central Region with a 13th-place finish in 25:28.77—five places ahead of St. Olaf’s fourth finisher—after passing a handful of athletes in the closing meters. He was Central’s fourth top-10 finisher at the conference meet this year and has steadily improved all season. His career-best time of 25:21.6 came in a 56th-place finish at last year’s NCAA meet.
“Drew showed his determination in the closing meters of the regional race,” Dunham said. “He’s probably the smartest distance runner I’ve ever coached. He understands the concept of running fast at the right time and he’s there. The regional was a great race for Drew, but it definitely did not surprise me. He’s a phenomenal runner and he’s got more in the tank, so it’ll be fun to see what he does Saturday.”
The fifth scorer for Central at the conference and regional meets was Isaac Steffensmeier, a highly touted freshman of St. Paul, Iowa. Steffensmeier joined a team of six returning varsity runners (seven race—five count towards the team score) and 14 returning letterwinners, but managed to crack the varsity lineup. He has scored in all five meets he competed in this fall and was the top freshman at the conference meet. Steffensmeier finished 35th—the second freshman finisher in the field—at the Central Region meet in 26:11.77.
“We’ve asked a lot of Isaac this season,” said Dunham. “He doesn’t have as much experience at this level or with these distances, but we’re asking him to run and run fast and he’s doing it. As we found out at the regional, there’s not a lot of leeway and Isaac’s made a great adjustment to the collegiate level. Saturday is a key moment in his career at Central.”
All five Dutch scorers at the Central Region championship—Horton, O’Brien, Decker, Jackson and Steffensmeier—were named all-region by way of their top-35 finishes.
An oft-overlooked aspect of being a successful cross country team is the Nos. 6 and 7 runners. Jamie Vander Veer (junior, Knoxville) and Brent Ewing (senior, Cincinnati, Centerville HS) push the top five to be better and more competitive by lobbying to score. Ewing has been Central’s sixth finisher in five of six meets he has competed in this year, including a 16th-place finish—one back of Steffensmeier—at the conference meet. Vander Veer was the sixth Dutch finisher at the regional, less than 14 seconds back of Steffensmeier in 44th place.
“I’m excited about Brent, Jamie and the rest of our team,” Dunham said. “We’re lucky to have depth and if one of our top five falters, we have two great runners behind them to keep us in contention. Each of our seven runners has the opportunity to score Saturday.”
Despite last year’s experience on the national stage, the Dutch are still a young team with a lot to prove and a hunger for success. O’Brien, a three-year letterwinner, and Ewing, a two-year letterwinner, are the only seniors in the top seven.
“We have some experience, but we’re still running against more experienced runners, especially the individuals that qualified,” said Dunham. “It will be a battle with good teams from across the country and we feel like we have something to prove. We were happy to run at the national meet last year, but 12th is not where we wanted to be. Qualifying two years in a row and running at this level is more than just luck, but we need to go out there and earn it.”
The work is done and it’s time to run.
“We’re excited to compete for the Dutch and to represent our school in Indiana this weekend,” Dunham said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Central Region receives plus-three—Five teams from the Central Region will be on display at Saturday’s NCAA meet. In addition to St. Olaf and Central—the two automatic qualifiers from the region—three regional teams received at-large berths into the 32-team field. Iowa Conference schools Loras and Luther—ranked Nos. 22 and 28, respectively—and No. 33-ranked Carleton were selected. The three teams are ranked Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in the region, respectively.
Top three unchanged in USTFCCCA poll— On the strength of its runner-up finish at the Central Region meet, the Dutch jumped two spots into a tie for No. 8 in the most recent United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll. After dropping one spot to No. 10 a week ago, Central leapfrogged No. 10-ranked Wis.-Eau Claire, No. 11-ranked New York University and No. 12-ranked Wis.-La Crosse to join Johns Hopkins in eighth. No. 6-ranked Wis.-Oshkosh and No. 7-ranked SUNY Cortland each jumped five spots to surpass both Johns Hopkins and Central.
National favorite North Central (Ill.) retained the top spot in the rankings and received all eight first-place votes. Washington (Mo.) and St. Olaf remained Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, while Williams and Middlebury each climbed one spot to Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.
Championship central—Complete coverage of the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships is available through Hanover College’s athletics website, with visitor information, race-day schedule, participant manual, course map, course video, course records and more. Visit www.hanover.edu/athletics/crosscountry/championships for more information.