Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jessica Pixler leads SPU to fourth straight GNAC team title...

For Jessica Pixler, it wasn't even close. For the winning Seattle Pacific Falcons (above/photo courtesy SPU Sports Information), it was a little closer than expected during Saturday morning's Great Northwest Athletic Conference women's cross country championship race.

Pixler (Sammamish, Wash., Eastlake HS) went to the front almost immediately and stayed there the rest of the way on the 6,000-meter layout at Apple Ridge Run just outside of Yakima. By the time she hit the finish line, Pixler was 39 seconds in front of runner-up Sarah Porter of Western Washington.

Porter, who was undefeated in her four regular-season meets, completed the 6-kilometer course in 21:51.

SPU junior Jane Larson and freshman Natty Plunkett joined her in the top 10, and then it was some crucial pack running behind that trio that helped the Falcons claim their fourth straight team crown.

Seattle Pacific, which won by 75 points last season, got all it could handle from Alaska Anchorage this time. But when the numbers were tallied, the Falcons had the edge on the Seawolves, 48-52, thus making official what already was an all-but-guaranteed trip to Nov. 8 West Regionals in San Diego.

"The girls on the team really stepped up for this race," said Pixler (Sammamish, Wash., Eastlake HS), a junior who is the defending NCAA Division II national champion. "Natty (who was seventh overall) had a great race, and Jane (third overall) had a fantastic race. She proved what a competitor she is. It was a team effort, for sure."

Pixler set the pace for that effort, stopping the watch in 21 minutes, 12 seconds on a day when runners were dealing not only with a hilly course, but with windy conditions, as well. Larson (Fall City, Wash., Cedar Park Christian HS), as she has all season, stayed within a minute of Pixler, crossing the line in 22:06, and fending off a late surge from Alaska Anchorage's combination of Laura Carr and Elizabeth Chepkosgei.

Plunkett (Bellevue, Wash., Newport HS) made it three Falcons in the top 10 when she came through in seventh place in 22:44.

That gave SPU, ranked third in the West Region and 17th nationally, a solid start in the scoring. But it was the group of maroon-clad runners behind them who finished the job.

Junior Kate Harline (Orem, Utah, Orem HS) was 16th in 23:21 as the No. 4 Falcon across the line with another strong run. Then came three in a row: junior Lisa Anderberg (Edmonds, Wash., Kamiak HS) in 21st (23:39), senior Katie Hart (Pasadena, Calif., L.A. Baptist HS) in 22nd (23:47), and freshman Mary Williams (Lake Jackson, Texas, Brazoswood HS) in 23rd (23:49). And while Anchorage had four runners in the top 10, that particular threesome all finished ahead of the Seawolves' fifth and final scorer, which ultimately sealed the title-winning deal.

"Everyone pulled so hard today. It was so exciting to feel that team vibe," said Larson, adding that the Falcons were able to maintain visual contact with their teammates, one of the key elements to team racing. "I could see Jessica (throughout the race), and Natty could see me."

Larson knew the two Alaska Anchorage front runners could see her quite clearly, too, and in fact, they appeared to be closing some ground as they headed up the last hill and into the final 800 meters. But Larson, who finished behind both of them at the Triton Cross Country Classic in San Diego on Oct. 11, pulled away, and actually had her sights set elsewhere.

"I wasn't focusing on (the Anchorage runners) – I was more focused on racing Sarah Porter," Larson said of the Western Washington standout who finished 15 seconds ahead of her in 21:51. "I was very happy with my race. I didn't get my goal of getting Porter. But now, I know what to do at regionals."

Pixler, who like Larson, already has run on the regional course at UC San Diego (she smashed the course record in winning the Triton Cross Country Classic on Oct. 11) also was pleased with her own performance on Saturday.

"I loved it – it was a lot of fun," Pixler said of the Apple Ridge course, which was carved out of (and is still surrounded by) apple orchards. "I started out slower than I usually do. But I wanted to work the middle of the race to prepare for nationals. I have to be strong in the middle. I'm just thankful to God that I was able to run pain-free and give it my best effort."

Added Falcon coach Erika Daligcon, "I was really pleased that Jessica was able to come back and just demonstrate that she can race even if there isn't a lot of competition around. And Jane really impressed me that she was able to get in front of those Anchorage girls."

Plunkett was the first freshman across the line in the race, and thus earned Freshman of the Year honors. Pixler was named Athlete of the Year by virtue of her victory.

The team dedicated the race to senior teammate Suzie Strickler (Richland, Wash., Richland HS), who hasn't been able to run this season because of a foot injury sustained while some some missionary work in Guatemala earlier this year.

"It's wonderful to know that they're giving their all in honor of someone else," Daligcon said.

Added Pixler, making reference to the fact that Strickler has remained with the team throughout the season, "Her attitude has been phenomenal."


The Western Washington men, ranked No.13 in the latest United States Cross Country Coaches Association/NCAA Division II Top 25, had its seven counting runners finish within 1:08 of one another. Leading the Vikings was Jordan Welling (So., Burlington/Burlington-Edison), who placed fifth, touring the 8-kilometer course in 25:15. Bennett Grimes (So., Pocatello, ID/Century) was ninth in 25:36 and Blake Medhaug (So., Bothell) 10th in 25:45.

The Alaska Anchorage men snapped a two-year winning streak by Western, finishing with a low score of 34 points in the nine-team race. That was 19 points fewer than Western, with Western Oregon third at 78. It was the third GNAC title for the Seawolves.

Taking the men's individual title was UAA's Marko Cheseto in 24:30. The Seawolves had a 1-2-3 finish with Jacob Parisien second (25:07) and Alfred Kangogo third (25:09).

"We had great performances from both teams," said Western coach Pee Wee Halsell. "It was a very tight grouping of our top seven men and that will help us at regionals."

"Welling ran a superb race. He didn't go out too hard and ran really strong."

Western's Lauren Briehof (Fr., Vancouver/Mountain View) was 12th in 23:14, Rachael Johnson (So., Yakima/West Valley) 15th in 23:20, and Courtney Olsen (Jr., Bellingham/Squalicum) 17th in 23:34.

On the men's side Yonas Berhe (Fr., Seattle/Roosevelt) was 13th in 26:02, Tahoma Khalsa (Jr., Shoreline/Shorecrest) 16th in 26:13, Eric Brill (Fr., Kent/Kentwood) 17th in 26:18 and Sam Bedell (Jr., Reno, NV) 19th in 26:23.

For Seattle Pacific, Brian Cronrath will get another chance. His fourth-place finished guaranteed him a trip to San Diego for the West Regional meet on Nov. 8. It'll be on the same UC San Diego course that Cronrath and teammate Chad Meis ran on Oct. 11 in the Triton Cross Country Classic, a race in which Cronrath took 10th in a personal-best 32:55 for 10,000 meters.

But this time, he'll be the lone SPU runner on the starting line. The Falcons needed a top-four team finish on Saturday to take the whole crew to San Diego, and they fell short by one spot. The Falcons totaled 119 points for fifth place.

NCAA Cross Country
GNAC Championships
Apple Ridge Run, Naches, Wash.

6,000 meters

Team scores – 1, Seattle Pacific 48; 2, Alaska Anchorage 52; 3, Western Washington 75; 4, Western Oregon 111; 5, Northwest Nazarene 123; 6, Alaska Fairbanks 158; 7, Saint Martin's 179; 8, Central Washington 218; 9, Montana State Billings 253.

Top 10 – 1, Jessica Pixler (SPU) 21:12; 2, Sarah Porter (WWU) 21:51; 3, Jane Larson (SPU) 22:06; 4, Laura Carr (UAA) 22:10; 5, Elizabeth Chepkosgei (UAA) 22:19; 6, Ashley Puga (NWN) 22:37; 7, Natty Plunkett (SPU) 22:44; 8, Hallidie Wilt (UAA) 22:56.24; 9, Jaclyn Puga (NWN) 22:56.86; 10, Ruth Jeptoo Keino (UAA) 23:02.

8000 meters

Team scores – 1, Alaska Anchorage 34; 2, Western Washington 53; 3, Western Oregon 78; 4, Saint Martin's 98; 5, Seattle Pacific 119; 6, Alaska Fairbanks 183; 7, Northwest Nazarene 183 (UAF gets higher spot on basis of sixth-runner tiebreaker); 8, Central Washington 213; 9, Montana State Billings 276.

Top 10 – 1, Marko Cheseto (UAA) 24:30; 2, Jacob Parisien (UAA) 25:07; 3, Alfred Kangogo (UAA) 25:09; 4, Brian Cronrath (SPU) 25:10; 5, Jordan Welling (WWU) 25:15; 6, David Kiplagat (UAA) 25:20; 7, Zeke VanPatten (WOU) 25:33; 8, John Riak (St.M) 25:33; 9, Bennett Grimes (WWU) 25:36; 10, Blake Medhaug (WWU) 25:45.

NOTE: The sports information office of Seattle Pacific, Western Washington, and St. Martin's College all contributed to this report.

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