Back-to-back Iowa Conference champions (2012, 2013)
PELLA — It took 49 years for Central College to claim its first Iowa Conference men’s cross country title. But the No. 9-ranked Dutch only needed 12 months to capture another as Austin O’Brien (senior, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley HS) led a 1-2-3 individual finish on Central’s home course Saturday.
The Central women placed fourth.
O’Brien was Central’s No. 4 runner at last year’s conference meet, placing ninth overall, but came from behind to outduel last year’s league champ, Eli Horton (junior, Altoona, Southeast Polk HS), to take the individual title with a personal-best time of 24:46.8 on the 8,000-meter A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex course. That eclipsed his previous best by nearly 15 seconds.
O’Brien, who was also named the league’s MVP, needed that kind of effort because Horton also registered a personal best, taking second in 24:50.3, nearly eight seconds under his previous top mark. Horton led much of the race, with O’Brien in fourth before rallying late in the race. Sophomore Cole Decker (Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) was third at 25:12.5, just over four seconds shy of his fastest time. Drew Jackson (junior, Johnston) was 10th in 25:56.9 and Isaac Steffensmeier (freshman, St. Paul, Fort Madison HS) was 15th in 26:27.5. All five Dutch runners received all-conference recognition.
Meanwhile Brent Ewing (senior, Cincinnati, Centerville HS) was 16th at 26:27.7 and Jamie Vander Veer (sophomore, Knoxville) was 22nd in 26:40.3. That was a huge leap for Vander Veer, whose previous career best was 28:09.
Central posted 31 points, two points better than last year’s champs, to outdistance No. 28-ranked Loras by 22 points. No. 24 Luther was third with 64 and Wartburg, which also received votes in the national rankings, had 74.
“For us to go 1-2-3 and score 21 points in a conference that is so competitive and so strong, is amazing,” said coach Joe Dunham, who was named the league’s coach of the year for the second straight year. Combined with his track and field honors, Dunham has received the league award eight times. “It’s a testament to the athletes on this team.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team. It’s the culmination of the efforts of so many people who put in so much work to get to this point. Give the runners all the credit. I feel very lucky to be a part of it.”
O’Brien is putting together a remarkable senior season. Despite Central returning its top seven runners from last year’s championship team, he has come on to become Central’s top runner in all four meets he’s run in this fall. Dunham said intense off-season training was the key, even though a semester of that off-season was spent in Wales last spring through Central College Abroad. Dunham said study abroad is an invaluable opportunity, but does present some training challenges.
“You look at what he’s done over the last 12 months,” Dunham said. “He’s worked so hard. But I think you also have to point to his time abroad. Ninety-nine percent of the time, runners who go abroad are not quite as fit as they could be when they come back. But Austin had a plan and he followed that plan. He’s in that one percent. He lost some weight and he really trained hard. I also think he was motivated by the success our distance runners had in track last spring. Across the ocean, he was watching those guys on the web stream and I think that really motivated him.
“A lot of work went into it. It’s a great credit to Austin. I am so proud of him.”
Horton and Decker were slowed by injury and illness early in the year, but are clearly closer to 100 percent now. The rest of the Dutch are hitting their stride as well.
“I can’t believe they ran as fast as they did,” Dunham said. “They all put together such a great race. They’ve been showing it in practice every day.”
Yet with the NCAA Division III Central Regional meet still ahead at Northfield, Minn., Nov. 16, Dunham sees room for growth.
“I’ve been waiting for the team to run as a whole unit,” he said. “We’re getting there. This was not a perfect race today and I think the guys would agree with that. But we’re getting closer. We’re improving each week and that’s so important in cross country. You want to keep progressing.”
Eaves earns all-conference honors—Central junior Alyssa Eaves received all-league recognition by placing 13th in the 6,000-meter women’s race in 23:58.6.
“That’s a great performance for her, to be all-conference,” Dunham said. “She has really led the team.”
Central’s Kasey Wiedmaier (freshman, Indianola) was 20th in 24:16.1, Gabi Wilson (freshman, Clive, Des Moines Christian HS) was 22nd 24:20.9, Daphne Baumgartner (senior, Perry) was 24th in 24:22.5, Emma Nelson (senior, Hedrick, Pekin HS) was 25th in 24:40.4, Maleaha Ernest (freshman, Hedrick, Pekin HS) was 30th in 24:55.3 and Molly Bramble (sophomore, Waukee) was 36th in 25:33.2.
Wartburg took the team crown with 30 points, with Loras at 43, Luther at 59 and Central at 104. Coe was a distant fifth with 173.
“It’s such a neat thing to see what (associate head coach Stephen Fyfe) has done to bring this team together,” Dunham said. “And very similar to the men, I think we have yet to see their best race. That’s certainly not a bad thing. We’ve improved every time we’ve run.
“They are by no means satisfied. They’re so hungry to be successful. That’s really neat to see.”