Saturday, October 25, 2008

Western Washington & Seattle Pacific look to repeat as GNAC champions...

Western Washington will be seeking its third straight men's team title and Seattle Pacific will go after its fourth consecutive women's title in the eighth annual Great Northwest Athletic Conference cross country championships on Saturday October 25th at the Apple Ridge Run Cross Country Facility in Yakima. Central Washington is the host.

The men’s 8k get underway at 10 am, with the women’s 6k following at 11 am.

The Vikings won the men's title each of the past two seasons with identical team scores of 35, just three points off the GNAC record of 32 set by Northwest Nazarene in the inaugural meet in 2001.

WWU, which also won the 2003 championship, returns three athletes that placed in the Top 10 a year ago to earn all-conference honors, but they won't go into the meet as the favorites. That honor will go to Alaska Anchorage, which is currently ranked second in the region and seventh nationally. Six-time defending regional champion Chico State is the No. 1 ranked team in the West.

Back for the Vikings, who are ranked third in the region and 13th nationally, are 2007 NCAA All-American Bennett Grimes, Blake Medhaug and Jordan Welling. They placed third, eighth and 10th last season and are among six returning Top 10 finishers from the 2007 meet at Nampa.

Also back are defending conference and West Region champion John Riak of Saint Martin's and Mike Schmidt and Braxton Jackson of Western Oregon. Riak will be seeking his 16th career victory and his fourth this season. Schmidt and Jackson are back after placing sixth and ninth a year ago.

Another returning all-conference performer is David Kiplagat of Alaska Anchorage, who finished second in 2005 and won the 2006 race, but slipped to 17th last season. He, however, did rebound to place fourth in the regional meet and then earned All-American honors with a 26th place finish at the national meet. Grimes placed 43rd, but was among the Top 30 U.S. born runners to also earn All-American honors.

UAA has had an outstanding fall led by newcomer Marko Cheseto. Cheseto won the UAA Invitational earlier this fall with the second best 8,000 meter time in GNAC history. Last weekend, he led a 2-3-4-5 Seawolf finish at the UCSD Triton Classic.

UAA easily won the team title in the meet which was billed as the NCAA Region preview, though Chico State and Western Washington were absent. Kiplagat finished third in the race behind Cheseto and UAA freshmen Alfred Kangogo and Jacob Parisien placed fourth and fifth.

Riak's wins this year have been at Western Washington, Saint Martin's and in the Apple Ridge Run. Two Western Oregon runners also have posted wins this fall. Chris Reed won the Willamette Grass Course Invitational in September and Zeke Van Patten won the PLU Invitational. The Wolves are currently ranked fifth in the region and also hope to challenge UAA and WWU for conference and regional honors.

In the women's race, Seattle Pacific, which is ranked third in the region and 17th nationally, will be seeking its fourth straight team title and its fifth in six years. Back to lead the Falcons, who won last year's meet with a GNAC-record low 24 points, are three Top 10 finishers including defending national champion and two-time defending GNAC champion Jessica Pixler.

Pixler will try to become the first GNAC athlete to win three conference titles and only the sixth to place in the Top 10 three times. Four other women will also be attempting the latter feat.

Pixler, a two-time cross country All-American, has only one win this fall, but she finished third against predominately Division I competition in the University of Washington Sundodger and placed sixth in the prestigious Stanford Invitational in her other two outings. Her lone win came in the UC San Diego Triton Classic.

Also back for the Falcons is All-American Jane Larson, who finished second in last year's conference meet and ninth at nationals, and Kate Harline, who was 10th in the conference meet.

A top-four finish in the team standings will mean a trip to San Diego for the NCAA West Regionals on Satuday, Nov. 8. That meet will take place at UC San Diego, where four SPU runners – juniors Jessica Pixler (Sammamish, Wash., Eastlake HS) and Jane Larson (Fall City, Wash., Cedar Park Christian HS) from the women's team, along with senior Brian Cronrath (Battle Ground, Wash., Battle Ground HS) and Chad Meis (Renton, Wash., Seattle Christian HS) from the men's – already have competed. (Those four ran in the Triton Cross Country Classic on Oct. 11.)

From there, the top five women's teams and top three men's teams qualify for the NCAA Division II nationals, which are set for Nov. 22 in Slippery Rock, Pa.

SPU is one of three GNAC teams that have been nationally ranked this fall. Alaska Anchorage is currently 19th and Western Washington was ranked earlier this season before dropping out of the Top 25. Currently, the Seawolves and Vikings are fifth and sixth in the West Region.

The top returnee for UAA is Elizabeth Chepkosgei, who placed eighth last year. Earlier this month she placed third at UC San Diego in leading the Seawolves to the team title in the Triton Classic. Also back is Laura Carr who was 10th in 2005 and eighth in 2006 before skipping last season.

Western Washington is led by Sarah Porter, who has a GNAC-best four wins this season (Orca Invitational, Appleridge, UW Sundodger Open Division, WWU Invitational). Porter placed ninth a year ago in the GNAC championship meet to earn Freshman of the Year honors.

Three other GNAC women have won race titles this fall, including UAF's Anna Coulter and Theresia Schnurr and freshman Joscelyn Minton of Saint Martin's. Coulter and Schnurr's wins came in races early in the year in Fairbanks. Minton won the PLU Invitational, earning the first victory by a Saint women in an event with at least three teams during the eight-year history of the conference.

Also competing in the conference meet will be Ashley Puga of Northwest Nazarene and Marcie Mullen of Central Washington. Puga placed third last year in the conference meet, fourth at regionals and 19th at nationals to earn All-American honors. Mullen was sixth in the 2007 GNAC meet.

SPEAKING OF THE FALCONS

As the postseason progresses, Pixler and Larson are expected to remain among the pacesetters. Coach Erika Daligcon said it's what happens behind them that will determine how high the Falcons ultimately fly.

"They're going to be focusing on any gaps (between runners) that may be appearing and on really working as a strong pack," she said. "Going into the season, we had a little motto: The Three C's – Concentration, Calmness and Confidence. Now, it's The Three D's – Decisions Determine Destiny. That means taking care of the little things."

Daligcon added that the Falcons should be helped by the fact that most of them either ran the Apple Ridge course earlier this season, or at least have seen video of it.

"We've been training on surfaces to get us ready," she said.

On the men’s side, Daligcon said her team is setting its sights on placing high enough to earn a trip to regionals.

"We're really focused on being in the top four," she said. "Saint Martin's probably will be our big focus. If we see any of those guys sneaking up around us, we'll be going after them."

Daligon was pleased that both the men's and women's teams got together on their own last week to take an early look at the challenges ahead.

"They sat down to refocus their goals and make sure everyone is on the same page as we go into this part of the season," she said.

NOTE: The Great Northwest Athletic Conference, and the sports information offices of Central Washington, Western Washington, and Seattle Pacific University all contributed to this report.

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