SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — For the second year in a row, the Dordt Defenders men’s cross country team planted its flag at the top of the proverbial conference mountain.
Dordt scored 28 points on its home course Saturday to win the Great Plains Athletic Conference meet, but this year’s journey was different than the last.
Eric Steiger led the Defenders with a runner-up finish with a time of 25 minutes, 26 seconds, and right behind him was junior Jacob Vander Plaats, who ended up with a time of 25:26.71 on the 8,000-meter course. Doane’s Alec Wick was the conference champion with a time of 25:05.
“We finally got through to what our goal has been all season,” Steiger said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. We showed up today, and we wanted it.”
The Defenders will compete as a team at the NAIA national meet on Nov. 22 at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington.
Defenders coach Nate Wolf admitted last year the Defenders didn’t know what they were doing, ran without worry and won the conference championship.
“Winning last year probably brought some pressure to them,” Wolf said. “I think there was anxiety. I think they had good confidence they were going to run fast.”
They wanted to defend their home course, but the Tigers had beaten them before this season. Still, Dordt ran with confidence and put their best team performance together to beat the Tigers by 16 points.
“You climb a mountain the first time, it’s different than when you look at the mountain a second time,” Wolf said. “You realize the time and effort you need to put in. I hope it’s a stepping stone. The first year, they really didn’t know what they were doing. This year, there were expectations and they had to learn how to manage their own and external expectations.”
The Defenders put all five of their scorers in the top 10 to secure the win.
Sophomore Brooks DeWaard was sixth (25:44), sophomore Nicolas Veldhorst seventh (25:45) and rounding out the first five for Dordt was Josh Rupprecht in 25:53.
George-Little Rock High School graduate Joe Anderson closed out his first GPAC meet with an 11th-place finish in 25:55.
“One of the things I enjoy about our team is they enjoy competition,” Wolf said. “We talked about controlling our emotions for the first 1,000 meters. I think they did that well, and I think that paid off in the last 1,000 meters.”
Meanwhile, Morningside juniors Ro Paschal and Connor Ritz ended up with top-10 finishes. Paschal, who placed fifth, crossed the finish line in 25:40 and Ritz was ninth in 25:48.
Paschal knew he had to stay with the front pack to give himself a chance at a top-10 finish, and that’s exactly what he did.
“The pace got out pretty hot, but I think our team and myself did a pretty good job of composing in the middle and gather throughout,” Paschal said. “I kept pressing it a little bit, pushed up the hills … throughout the season, I’ve been slowly gaining confidence, and going into the race, I knew I would be somewhere in the top-10. I get in there and tried to hang on.”
The Mustangs, who had three in the top-20, was the third-place team in the team standings with 102 points.
Joshua Starr led the Northwestern men with a 13th-place finish in 25:57. The Red Raiders were fourth with 121 points.
Couch wins women’s race
Olivia Couch wanted better than a sixth-place finish this time around.
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And, she got it.
Couch won the women’s race in 18:20 — also a personal best — on the 5,000-meter course, which was five places better and 52 seconds faster than what she had at last year’s conference meet.
“I couldn’t ask for better weather and on our home course,” Couch said. “A lot of things came together.
Couch went wire-to-wire as the race leader, and she’s been waiting on a race where she could take control in the style she did Saturday.
After the first mile, Couch extended her lead of runner-up Kylahn Heritage of Concordia and the Defenders senior beat Heritage by 10 seconds.
“There were a lot of nerves before the race, but we just knew it was going to hurt,” Couch said. “We were going to press into that … it’s a good feeling. We knew there were going to be a couple Concordia girls around, a couple of Northwestern girls, our goal was to work on the front pack.”
The Defenders had a couple of their runners sick and injured on Saturday, so without a full lineup, they were a tad concerned where they’d end up.
“They put their best foot forward,” Wolf said. “They all crossed the line feeling like it was their best effort today.”
The Defenders had two other girls in the all-conference (top-15) group. Senior Sarah Wensink was third (18:44) and Eden Winslow sixth (19:09).
The Bulldogs beat the Defenders 39-48 for the team title.
Northwestern was third with 59 points, and its leader was freshman Micah Van Kalsbeek in 19:15, good for ninth.
Red Raiders junior Hunter Koepke was 11th (19:17), and seniors Kelsey Lang and Breanna Harthoorn rounded out the top-15.
McKibben leads Morningside
When Mustangs sophomore Jo McKibben heard that she ran her first mile in 5:49, it was hard for her not to get excited.
She knew she had a couple miles left in the race, but also couldn’t help how quick of a start it was for her.
McKibben, an MVAOCOU graduate, placed seventh at the meet, finishing in 19:10.
McKibben was just as thrilled with her overall finish as she was at the 1-mile marker.
“We got out pretty fast and I was like, ‘Oh no, don’t think about it,’” McKibben said. “I didn’t let it get to me. When I heard that, I said, ‘Yep, this is going to be interesting,’ but I can’t let it go now. This is the meet to do it. So, I let that drive me right through the race.”
McKibben’s goal was to get out in 6:11 for the first mile, and build from there. McKibben knew she had to keep digging to keep up with the front of the pack, and the former Rams sprinter did, especially at the end.
“This is by far the best race I’ve ever had in my career,” McKibben said with a laugh.
Mustangs junior Emalee Fundermann finished eighth, 5 seconds behind McKibben.