Bearcat Runners Made Incredible Strides in 05

As he looks back on the cross country season just completed, Coach Matt McGuirk can only shake is head in wonderment at the accomplishments of an incredibly young and talented Bearcat team.

“We took 14 runners to nationals. Five were freshmen, two were sophomores and we only lose five of those 14 runners to graduation. Any time you can take a freshman to nationals, it means a world of difference in their careers. We’re very pleased with our accomplishments this season,” said McGuirk.

McGuirk was especially pleased with the rapid strides made by his women’s contingent.

“Our women were not even ranked at the beginning of the season and didn’t crack the Top 20 until half-way through the season. Then we go on to win the conference title and the regional title and end up finishing 14th at nationals. That’s one place higher than we were ranked all year. And with a little luck we could have finished 9th,” said McGuirk, who has been beset with “condolence calls from coaches and others after Saturday’s meet. “We’re so proud of both these teams and the effort they put out. Sure we would have liked to finish higher, but we ran a tough course as hard as we could and we finished with our heads held high.”

On the women’s side, sophomore Sarah Zerzan’s 25th pace finish landed her a spot on the All-American team, a fitting end to an incredible season.

“Sarah ran her best two races in her last two races (regionals and nationals). She battled through minor injuries all year long, never once complained and went out and set a benchmark for her teammates, including three freshmen. That team was relaxed and ready to run on Saturday and that’s a reflection of Sarah’s leadership.”

Want proof of Zerzan’s toughness? Mid-way through the race she took what McGuirk described as a “Pete Rose head-first dive down a hill.” She got up and actually moved from the mid 30s to 25th place by the end of the race.

McGuirk also had high praise for Natalie Muren, a senior who has been injured much of the season.

“A couple months ago we thought her career was over due to a stress fracture. But she battled back because she really wanted to be a part of this team her last season and she’s been such a big reason for our success over the past few years. It was so gratifying to see her run a strong race to end her senior season at Willamette,” said McGuirk.

Now with Zerzan and freshman Ali Maki, Maddie Coffman and Mara Engle, all coming back along with junior Liz Hart, the core remains for another run next year.

On the men’s side, McGuirk clearly thought his team could have finished better than 16th place. The men went into the race ranked No. 8 in the country.

“But there were not many points separating us from 8th place. A couple of stronger runs and we were right there,” said McGuirk. “”This was the toughest course we ran on all season, and Saturday, the course won. But that doesn’t take away from the incredible efforts of our team this year.”

McGuirk points to grad student Scott Overby, who was the Bearcat’s third best runner in his final race.

“Scott is a graduate student in our MAT program is faced with an incredible work load as he gets his masters. He just didn’t have anything left at the end of his races at the conference championships and regionals. But we talked to Scott and he assured us he had one more big race left in him… and he proved it on Saturday. This is a guy who has run in four national cross country meets. He’s won individual and team conference titles and is an All-American in the steeplechase. Scott has performed at a very high level for all four years. He’s the epitome of what we look for in a student-athlete,” said McGuirk.

This year’s men’s team won its fifth straight conference title, fourth straight regional title and made a fifth straight team appearance at nationals.

“We are still one of the best teams in the country year in and year out. It wasn’t our best day for the men Saturday, but every time I saw one of my guys run by, they were battling; they were working together and trying to move up in the race.”

While McGuirk will miss Overby, Nick Symmonds and Carlos Ruiz, the program is in the capable hands of runners like Ian Batch, Tristan Knutson-Lombardo and Travis Harris.

“This race was invaluable for our younger runners. They now know what it’s like to compete under very tough conditions against the best runners in the country. This raises the bar for us. We’ll be ready for another run next season.”