Unheralded Cross Country will make presence felt at Nationals
The Beacon Bolt is a publication of the student body of Northwest Christian University. On Wednesday morning, the NCU Cross Country teams will travel to North Carolina (they are flying there, not running) to compete in the NAIA National Championship meet.
The Women were ranked number 1 nationally in the preseason, marking the first time ever that an NCU program had been awarded the top spot in a NAIA national poll. After briefly dropping to number 2 early in the year, the Beacons soon reclaimed the top spot and have only gained momentum since. This season has seen every female runner hit a new personal record at least once; the team win all but one race (they took second at the Inland Empire Classic to the University of Calgary, a Canadian school who have an enrollment of over thirty thousand); and the individual record beat multiple times by Alyssa Harmon and Sierra Brown.
The Lady Beacons have become mainstays at the national meet, finishing 4th in 2011, 3rd in 2014, and in the process firmly establishing themselves as one of the premiere collegiate running programs in the country, all under the watchful eye of coach Heike McNeil. The chances of NCU bringing home a national title for the first time in school history looks very strong this year, and the future looks even brighter for a team that has lots of young talent and not a single senior.
Last year the women won the first conference championship in school history, and repeated this year with a dominant performance that saw Beacon runners taking five of the top six spots in the race. With the blistering one-two punch of Harmon and Brown, trio of Michelle Fletcher, Rosa Schmidt, and Shea Vallaire never far behind, and a constantly improving underclass that has been cultivated all season, there is good reason to believe that in spite of this team’s incredible success their best days are still ahead of them. Freshman Emily Moon, when asked what it’s been like to come in and run on a team of this caliber, said: “Running on this team has given me confidence and the ability to really strive to be the best that I can be. When I was choosing a school that I wanted to run for, I really was looking for a team where I wouldn’t be the best on the team because I knew I would be pushed beyond barriers that I had.” She also added that as a freshman the pressure to perform well isn’t as high as it is for those who have been in the program longer, but that she is still motivated to live up to the expectations the team’s reputation has brought.
In similar fashion, the men are also ascending to new heights this year. It’s not often that being ranked 23rd in the nation comes with the risk of being overshadowed, but that is the case here as the men have quietly been putting together solid performances all year long, despite not always having their roster at full strength.
The men posted their highest-ever team finish at a conference meet this year (third place), and Garrett Kraal’s third place individual effort was the highest finish in school history for a NCU male runner at the conference meet as well. This added another accomplishment to compliment his beating the individual school record earlier in the season. As a nod to their success, the Beacon men have been handed an at-large bid to the National meet. This will be the first time NCU will send a full squad to compete in the men’s race.
This national birth has been a long time coming for the Beacon men, who have been hovering on the outskirts of the national rankings for the last few years, getting sporadic top 25 recognition prior to cementing their position as a regular in the polls this season. Last year, Chris Zirkle finished his cross country career as the lone Beacon to compete in the men’s national meet, and represented with a run that earned him All-American honors. This year however, there will be a full team on the course in Charlotte representing NCU.
Garrett’s brother, Taylor Kraal, a four-year veteran of the NCU cross country program, and one of three seniors, gave this statement regarding the team and what got them over the hump and into the national picture:
“Being here for four years, I can really say that coming together as a team, holding each other accountable, and staying positive is what really allowed us to reach our goal of going to nationals. Additionally, people may have heard us talk about G.L.A.P or might have seen it on social media. This represents a summation of our core values we established at the beginning of the year and they stand for Grace, Loyalty, Accountability, and Positivity. We constantly kept these core values in check and I think they played a major role in helping us get to nationals for the first time. We also had way more support this year from the student body and faculty at NCU and we couldn’t be more appreciative.”
It’s truly been inspiring to see the success both teams have had this year and the increasing school support for them. Cross country has long been the banner sport of NCU athletics, not just in results but in team and individual character as well. Everything they have accomplished thus far has been well deserved; and in addition to athletic success, their values, work ethic, and demeanor are all qualities that serve as a model that the rest of the NCU athletic teams should strive to emulate.
On Wednesday morning at 8:00 a.m., students and faculty will have the opportunity to come together in the MEC lobby and show support for our cross country teams as they embark on their trip to North Carolina. It’s a great chance to come and encourage a group that in many ways are the unsung heroes of Beacon athletics. The majority of the time they race at locations far away from our campus with few to zero fans, yet in spite of that are always positive and in good spirits. Wednesday is a chance to acknowledge what they have done so far,
and to let them know that even if we aren’t able to cheer them on in person, we will all be rooting for them here.
Godspeed to both teams. Nobody represents our school better than you, and I have no doubt you will continue to do so at Nationals.