Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
2015 Iowa Conference finish: Second
2015 NCAA Division III Central Regional finish: Second
2015 NCAA Division III championships finish: 25th
Starters lost: 1 (Cole Decker)
Starters returning: 6 (Taylor Donner, Mark Fairley, Tanner Rathje, Jon Specht, Isaac Steffensmeier, Ben Stelk)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 2/11
2016 team captains: Mark Fairley, Isaac Steffensmeier
PELLA â€” A young crop of talent is now at the forefront for the Central College men’s cross country team as it starts a new era this season.
For the first time since 2011, the Dutch have no returning All-Americans to set the pace for the rest of the roster. Gone is two-time Iowa Conference champion and NCAA Division III Central Region winner Cole Decker, who was an All-American in cross country and track and field last year. The Dutch have rocketed their way to the national stage under coach Joe Dunham, the wildly successful head coach who is entering his eighth season. After not earning a berth in the NCAA Division III Championships Central since 1980, the Dutch have appeared the past four seasons, climbing as high as sixth in the U.S. Central was 25th nationally last fall.
But while Decker departs, the Dutch still have six of last year’s seven varsity regulars returning, along with a fierce determination to continue their quest to be a national contender.
“The thing I’m the most excited about is somebody else is going to have to step up,” Dunham said. “They trained with Cole for the last three years and I think he instilled a confidence in their ability.”
According to Dunham, the success of the program is found in two key principles that will remain the same with a new leadership core.
“We’ve really solidified a culture of hard work,” he said. “Our team has such a great work ethic. They also care for each other extremely well. The team bond they have is a unique one.”
Leading the pack for Central this year is senior Isaac Steffensmeier, a three-time all-Iowa Conference performer. In the shadows of Decker and 2014 grad Eli Horton, another all-American, throughout his first three seasons, Steffensmeier has been thrust forward as the leader of the program.
“It’s Isaac’s turn to step up and take the lead,” Dunham said. “He has shown that he is more than capable of great things. He has been a front runner for this team, now he we need him to be more consistent. I know he is up for the challenge.
“He can’t be living in the limelight of those other guys anymore. It’s time for him to step up and reach his potential. He knows what it takes to be successful, he just has to make it happen.”
Tanner Rathje registered a career-best seventh-place finish at the Iowa Conference Championships in 2015. The junior will be looked to for more of the same in 2016.
“One thing Tanner improved on last year was consistency,” Dunham said. “He ran well almost every race but he’s got to take that next step and become a frontrunner for us this year. I’m confident that it will happen.”
As a sophomore last year, Mark Fairley’s strong cross country season catapulted him into a great track and field season in the spring. Dunham is hoping for a similar effect this fall from Fairley, who was voted as a captain by his teammates.
“The team will be looking at Mark as a leader,” Dunham said. “He brings great inspiration to our guys. The improvements he made over the spring and summer should allow him to do some special things this fall.”
Jon Specht finished in Central's top-five every race last season, including a 14th overall finish at the Dutch Invitational.
"Jon has had to deal with numerous injuries over his time here at Central," Dunham said. "But his resilience, commitment to getting health and his passion for his teammates has been inspiring to us all. I'm really looking forward to watching him compete this year."
Junior Taylor Donner was just outside of Central’s top five in every race last year but Dunham is amazed by his development and expects that streak to come to an end.
“Taylor is probably the most improved person on our team in the last 365 days,” Dunham said. “He’s really bought into our system and I’m expecting him to be a top-five runner.”
The top freshman runner a year ago, Kyle Pape is in position to become a permanent fixture in the varsity lineup according to Dunham.
“He does everything I ask him to do and he wants to do more.” Dunham said. “He believes he belongs with the top guys and I think he’ll be fighting for a spot in the lineup.”
Seniors Karl Weaver and Kyle Schelling will look to make their biggest splash with the program as seniors.
“Karl has improved every year he’s been here and I expect nothing less this year,” Dunham said. “Kyle had the best cross country season of his career last fall but struggled with injuries during track. He put in an incredible amount of work to get healthy. I can’t wait to see what he does this fall.”
Jeremy Caracci and Ben Stelk have been just outside of the lineup in the first two seasons with the Dutch, but the juniors have been vital to the team’s success nonetheless.
“Jeremy is definitely one of our staple leaders,” Dunham said. “He has kept our team together in a lot of ways. Stelk needs confidence. He continues to improve but I really need to challenge him to believe in himself."
Despite battling through health issues, Jordan Toomey was the second-best newcomer on the squad. Given a clean bill of health, Dunham believes he is prepped to burst onto the scene this season.
“I saw a glimmer of fight in him at the end of the track season,” he said. “He really has a lot of ability and I think we’ll see the fruits of his labor this season.”
Sophomore Parker Hill competed in just one race during the cross country season last fall, but showed signs of his talent during the track season.
“Parker is confident coming into the season,” Dunham said. “If he can continue to improve like he already has, he will be knocking on the door to be on varsity.”
Colin Thomson is returning for his sophomore campaign as well.
“I really think he’ll continue to improve within our system,” Dunham said. “He has been working hard.”
A large nine-man class join the squad as freshmen this year. Despite the talented roster already in place, the freshmen still have the potential to make important contributions.
“I’m very excited about this class,” Dunham said. “They can provide a lot of depth our team needs but also they can really push our upperclassmen.
The 2016 campaign beings with the annual Dutch Invitational at Central’s highly regarded on-campus course September 3. Central will travel to three different states during the regular season, including a long flight out to the east coast for the Connecticut College Invitational in Waterford on October 15.
“We make special efforts to get our athletes to meets all over the country,” Dunham said. “We’re one of the few Division III schools that have those kinds of opportunities. They are invaluable chances to improve as a program but most importantly give our student-athletes experiences they may not find anywhere else.”
Central, second in the Iowa Conference the past two seasons after winning the league crown in 2012 and 2013, looks to be in the title mix again this fall.
At the NCAA Division III Central Regional on November 12 in Northfield, Minnesota, the Dutch will battle for its fifth straight spot at the national meet. Last year Central was second in the highly competitive 29-team regional for the third time in four years.
“It would be huge for our program,” Dunham said. “We’ve been able to do it the past four years and I think that’s our expectation now. It’s going to be a challenge, but work ethic and commitment to the sport will carry us through.”