For the cross country teams from Central and Western Washington, the road to the national championships ends this Saturday at the NCAA Division II title meet in Louisville, Kentucky at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer Park.
The Wildcats from Ellensburg (above/photo courtesy CWU sports information) have been one of the best stories of the 2014 season, after finishing fifth in the NCAA West Regional meet in Billings, Montana. The squad, ranked #22 in the final USTFCCCA Division II regular season rankings, makes its first appearance at the national championship meet since 2000.
For the Vikings, sending teams to the national championship meet is something that's expected every season. The men's squad have made it to nationals every year since 2007, while the women have run in the final meet of the season in six of the last seven years.
Western's squads goes into the national championship meet ranked #18 in the final USTFCCCA men's poll, while the women's team goes to Louisville tied for #23 in the national poll.
Western's Katelyn Steen (left/photo courtesy WWU Athletics), the reigning GNAC and regional champ out of Eastlake HS in Sammamish, is considered one of the top contenders to win the national title.
"I think she does (have a good chance to win)", said Viking coach Pee Wee Halsell. "It's not an easy thing, but I believe in her abilities and know that she's capable of it."
In talking about her strategy on Saturday, Halsell said, "She'll go out pretty hard because the field will and be in contact and then the second half she's just going to go for it."
Steen will be joined by Haley O'Connor, who makes her third nationals appearance, along with Taylor Guenther, Sofia Marikis, Austin Reiter, Makhaila Thornton, and Brittany Grant. All but Grant have national championship meet experience.
When talking about their team's goals Saturday, Halsell and Central Washington coach Kevin Adkisson both aim to better their USTFCCCA rankings.
"it's nice to see that we are ranked 22nd in the nation, and I think that it is very reasonable for us to set a goal of finishing in the top 20," said Adkisson.
After seeing Connie Morgan earn All-America honors in the 2013 meet, it was a goal of the Wildcats to get the whole team over to nationals. However, Adkisson is looking at this as a building block for the future, stating "It's my goal as a coach to make this an annual thing. We have to keep people healthy, motivated, and continue to recruit."
Besides Morgan, the Wildcats will have in their arsenal Dani Eggleston and Megan Rogers, who finished in the top 15 at the regionals.
Also traveling to Louisville are Hannah Dowdell, Brenna Eldredge, Erin Chinchar, and Jayna Inderbitzin.
The Viking men will be led by Isaac Griffith, Tabor Reedy, Jonathan Quimby and Nathan Richards, all of whom have national championship meet experience. Griffith was the Vikings' #1 runner at the regional championship meet, finishing 12th two weeks ago.
Isaac Derline, Sean Eustis and Matt Lutz will run in their first national championship meet.
Saturday's meet gets underway at 8am pacific time with the men's 10k, with the women's 6k following at 9:15 am pacific. The meet will be streamed live via ncaa.com.
NOTE: The USTFCCCA and the sports information offices of Central Washington and Western Washington University contributed to this report.