Cross country faces tough test at regionals

A top-five finish at regionals will probably mean a ticket to the NCAA championship, but both squads must first overcome the Midwest Region’s stacked competition.

By Jordan Holliday

What the cross-country teams hope to achieve at the regional meet depends on whom you ask. While some runners will be looking to cap off their careers, for others, the season is only just heating up.

The Midwest Regional Championships, which will be held tomorrow at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, will pit the men’s and women’s squads against teams from Milwaukee to Missouri and in some cases, against the nation’s top runners. On the line—besides bragging rights in the region—will be the opportunity to compete in the NCAA Championship next Saturday at Hanover College in Hanover, IN.

To advance to Indiana as a team, the men or women need to either finish in the top two this weekend to secure an automatic bid, or if that doesn’t pan out, they must finish in the top five and hope to get an at-large berth. The NCAA selection committee can accept up to five teams from each region for the national meet, and the Maroons would likely be chosen if they finished within the top five, head coach Chris Hall said.

Placing in the top five isn’t a guarantee for either the men or the women, though. In the women’s field, UW–Eau Claire, UW–Oshkosh, and UW–La Crosse are in the top 10, and Wash U is 18th. On the men’s side, North Central College, UW–Stevens Point, UW–Oshkosh, and UW–La Crosse are all ranked in the top 10 nationally, Augustana is 17th, and Wheaton is 26th. Neither Chicago squad is ranked.

The Midwest has a particularly strong lineup of cross country teams. Not every region in the country can claim such a pool of talent.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, our men’s region is the best in the country,” Hall said. As for the women: “I don’t know if I’d say that it is the toughest region in the country, but I think we have the second toughest region on the women’s side.”

Amid the bevy of talent at Augustana this weekend, it will be particularly difficult for the men’s team to continue on to next week.

“In reality, I feel that if you’re not potentially a top 10 team in the country, you’re not a top five team in our region, on the men’s side,” Hall said. “And we’re just not there.”

Hall’s impressions were echoed by fourth-year Chris Peverada, one of the top runners on the men’s team.

“As the season began, we felt we had a solid chance to go to nationals as a team. A chance is still there, but at this point, we might need some other teams to underperform,” Peverada said. “If we go out and have a great race and one or two teams ahead of us have below-par days, we could be running in Indiana next weekend.”

Even if his team doesn’t make the NCAAs, Peverada himself might still be headed on. Hall pointed to Peverada and second-year Arthur Baptist as two runners with shots at qualifying individually. To do that, they would need to finish in the top seven among runners not attached to a team that qualifies for nationals.

Prospects are better for the women’s team. They likely won’t garner an automatic bid, but with a slightly stronger slate of Chicago runners and slightly weaker competition than in the men’s race, the women appear primed to finish high enough to merit an at-large berth.

“I like our chances of being one of those top five teams,” Hall said, “and I really believe that if we run up to our ability, then we kind of control our own destiny, as far as being a top-five team.”

Hall’s runners on the women’s team are also confident that they can handle the competition at Augustana.

“The Midwest region is wicked strong, and if we all show our best potential Saturday, we will be racing at the national meet next Saturday,” said second-year Liz Lawton, the Maroons’ top finisher at the UAA meet two weeks ago.

In case hopes of making nationals don’t inspire Lawton, Perevada, and their teammates to run fast, they’ll have an extra bit of motivation tomorrow: the cold. The current Rock Island forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-thirties, snow, and possibly some accumulation before the race. They may want to move quickly just to keep warm.

If nothing else, regionals will at least let the teams know where they stand. After a season during which the women in particular had to compete against illness in addition to other runners on the course, both teams can field a full complement of their best runners this weekend.

“I feel like we’re really healthy going into this weekend’s meet, and if things don’t go well for us, we won’t really have any excuses,” Hall said. “I think our team is healthy, fit, and really ready to race, so we look forward to it.”