For the first time during cross country head coach Grier Gatlin’s tenure at SOU, the Raider Men’s cross country team are the NAIA National Champions. Gatlin, who had previously coached at SOU from 1999-2005, again took over the helm of the cross country program in 2011.
Leading the way at the North Farm Cross Country Course on Saturday was senior Connor Cushman who ran 24:59 for the 8k race and placed 16th overall, the Raiders lone All-American. Cushman, who has been one of the Raiders’ top runners all year, said it was the consistency of the top five that enabled them to secure the team title.
“Our top five were the kind of people who weren’t going to have bad races,” said Cushman. “You could always count on Dylan [Alexander], Noah [Oberriter], KP [Kevin Poteracke], and Ray [Schireman], to have a super solid race. Nobody was going to fall off the face of the Earth.”
And following Cushman were exactly those he listed: senior Dylan Alexander (33rd, 25:18), sophomore Noah Oberriter (37th, 25:20), junior Ray Schireman (44th place, 25:41), senior Kevin Poteracke (47th, 25:44), as well as senior Caleb Diaz (126th, 26:12.3) and senior Matthew Williams (167th, 26:25.4). The top seven were able to come together as a unit and collectively race well. In the words of Gatlin, the team was “the epitome of consistency.”
It was the ability to place the entire top five within 46 seconds of each other, and to only be separated by 31 different spots, which lead them to the top of the podium.
It is the second time the Raider Men have captured the national championship, the last time being in 2010. This championship comes after a nightmarish 22nd place showing at last year’s national championship meet, where SOU was only able to field five runners as some members of the team, including the Raiders’ top three runners, dealt with a bout of norovirus contracted days before the meet.
This year, Gatlin’s team was finally able to achieve something it had come so close to before, time and time again.
“I think they’re self-aware,” said Gatlin. “I think they understood that we didn’t have an Eric Avila (2013 NAIA cross country individual champion) or an Eric Gelfi (SOU 10,000m record holder) who was going to be 3rd or 4th, and I don’t think that ever really bothered us. I think we were very aware of what our strength was as a group.”
How the win was captured strayed from the norm of previous winners. Typically, the national title winner has had at least one runner in the top 10, as did the past 6 champions. SOU didn’t yield that kind of low stick, yet the Raiders’ top five were able to piece together individual strong performances to secure the elusive championship.
Adding another layer to the win, the roster turnover from last year’s squad who all graduated–Jared Hixon, the 2016 NAIA 1500m champion; Zach Boyd-Helm, a 4x All-American in track and field; and Trevor Lynn, SOU’s highest finisher at the 2015 national meet–was relatively substantial.
When examining the Raiders season schedule as a whole, one thing particularly stands out. SOU only competed in six meets total and there was a month long portion of the season where there was no racing, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 19. Cushman said that that training block played a part in their national title win.
“You gotta trust the training,” said Cushman. “And having a month where you just don’t have to worry about getting on the road, traveling anywhere to race, it just kind of helps you stay healthy. Taking that month off of racing while school was getting started helped us a bunch.”
Looking ahead the Raiders will now shift their focus to indoor track, which is slated to begin Jan. 29 at the Tracktown USA High Performance Meet in Portland. The indoor season will run until the NAIA championships in early March. Outdoor track begins shortly after at the Wildcat Invite in Chico, California.