Season on the line at regional meet in Rock Island

When the men’s and women’s cross country teams compete at Saukie Golf Course in Rock Island, Illinois this Saturday, their season will hang in the balance.

By Matthew Schaefer

When the men’s and women’s cross country teams compete at Saukie Golf Course in Rock Island, Illinois this Saturday, their season will hang in the balance.

Augustana College hosts the 2011 Midwest Regional Championship, the Maroons’ penultimate—or, if they falter, their last—race of the postseason.

It will be an uphill battle. In an event where the top five men’s teams and the top four women’s teams will likely advance, the men are ranked sixth and the women are ranked eighth in a competitive field.

The men are ranked behind North Central (Ill.), Wash U, Wheaton (Ill.), UW–Oshkosh, and UW–La Crosse, while the women are ranked behind Wash U, UW–Eau Claire, North Central (Ill.), UW–Stevens Point, Illinois Wesleyan, UW–La Crosse, and UW–Oshkosh.

“We simply need five men on our team to have a ‘good’ race—to maintain contact, move up throughout, and finish strong—in order to advance to Nationals,” third-year Billy Whitmore said.

Despite the magnitude of this weekend’s meet, the team’s mind-set remains the same.

“We know what a race feels like, we know how we’ve approached races earlier this season and we’ve had success with that approach,” third-year Isaac Dalke said. “There is no reason to stray from that now. This might be the race, but it is also a race as any other.”

“We have to trust the results of our training and compete like an elite team,” Whitmore said.

Still, the Maroons understand the implications of Saturday’s race.

“I like to think that I approach all races in the same way, but Regionals is an exceptionally important race, and we do have to perform well in order to continue to the National Meet,” third-year Julia Sizek said. “Generally, this meet does have a lot more pressure attached to it than our other races.”

In order to advance to Oshkosh, the site of the DIII National Championship on November 19, the men’s and women’s teams must perform better than their rankings indicate. The men are now ranked 14th in the country, down from 10th last week, and the women are now out of the national rankings, down from 33rd.

And they have a plan to do it.

“Every one of our seven runners wants that fifth team spot, and we all will show up Saturday and give the utmost effort to get it. I think the key will be the confidence to run within ourselves, to not get overwhelmed or overreach when we line up on race day,” Dalke said. “We know what we want, and we know we can get it; now we just have to get it.”

For the girls’ team, in particular, it will be critical to have a successful start to the race.

“I would say a good start is pretty key for our team, especially mentally. In particular, I think that the long and wide start at Regionals should really help us, and everyone is aware that we need to just put ourselves out there,” Sizek said. “One of our biggest problems at the Conference meet was not getting out to the front of the pack and settling into the race farther back.”

The teams are intent on performing well, exceeding expectations, and making it to the National Meet. Should the team, as a whole, not qualify, members of the teams could still qualify individually by being one of the first seven individuals not on the top five teams to cross the line.

“I know that if I place high, the team will also benefit. Either way, I don’t want to leave any doubts,” Whitmore said. Although there is the possibility of qualifying as an individual, the team still maintained the same attitude they’ve had all year: team first.

“We have seven men racing on Saturday, and we have some thirty-odd more who have been with them throughout the season—many of whom could very well be racing, too, and many of whom are making the three-hour drive out early that morning to support us,” Dalke said. “If there is a day to race for something more than myself, it is Saturday. Whatever I accomplish individually, it can only really be in the shadow of the team.”

It will be vital to come ready to perform. A low enough finish for the teams means their seasons are finished.

“I think we all need to have good days and stick to the front of the pack,” Sizek said.

It all comes down to Saukie Golf Course: a tough field, cheering fans, a midday starting time, and a fierce battle for postseason survival. For both teams, it’s all on the line.

“The entire season has been in preparation for this race,” Dalke said, “and, with any luck, the race after it.”

The women’s 6 is at 11 a.m. The men’s 8 is at noon.