Willamette Men's and Women's Cross Country Teams Claim Championships at NCAA West Regional

CHINO, CALIF. -- The Willamette men’s and women’s cross country teams both won championships at the NCAA West Regional on Saturday, Nov. 11 at Prado Park in Chino, Calif. As a result, the Willamette teams earned automatic berths into the NCAA Division III National Championships next weekend.

Willamette runner Sarah Zerzan (Jr., San Carlos, CA/Notre Dame HS) won the women’s individual title at the Regional meet, as she completed the 6-kilometer course in 21:45.68 to win by 37.30 seconds over Tamma Carleton of Lewis & Clark College in second place. The Bearcats won the women’s team title with 63 points (1-13-15-16-18) to finish 14 points in front of Colorado College, which scored a 77 (9-11-14-21-22).

The WU men’s team was led by Ian Batch (Jr., Boise, ID/Capital HS), who took eighth place in 25:27.50 over the 8-kilometer course. The individual men’s champion was Julian Boggs from Colorado College, who clocked in at 24:32.60 to win by 1.95 seconds over Will Leer of Pomona-Pitzer. Willamette won the team title with 75 points (8-9-13-22-23), as the Bearcats finished 12 points in front of Occidental at 87 (3-6-17-27-34).

“We did what we had to do,” Willamette Head Coach Matt McGuirk said. “We came down here, ran against some very good teams and won the team championships. We’re really proud of the kids. All of the pressure was on them.”

It was the Bearcats’ fifth Regional title in a row for the men’s team, as Willamette became only the second university to string together five consecutive West Regional men’s championships. The WU women’s team became the first squad to record four West Regional women’s titles in a row.

Willamette and Colorado College automatically qualified their women’s teams for the NCAA National Championships on Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Voice of America Park in West Chester, Ohio. Willamette and Occidental automatically qualified their men’s teams for the National Championships, which will include the top two finishers in the team standings at each of eight regional sites, plus 16 at large teams.

The at-large berths will go to teams placing third, fourth or fifth at the regional level. Seven runners from each regional race who have not qualified with their respective teams, will complete the field.

In the women’s race, Willamette won despite having several team members affected by colds. Zerzan was one of the Bearcats trying to overcome illness.

“She has a cold, too,” McGuirk said. “I encouraged her to run as slowly as possible for as long as possible ... They went up a pretty good hill (with about a mile to go) and she just pulled away. Fortunately, she didn’t have to run too hard.”

Zerzan’s winning time at the West Regional was 1:13.02 slower than her school-record time of 20:32.66 at the Northwest Conference Championships on Oct. 28, but the slower pace didn’t hold her back. She was in the first group of runners throughout the race, as the lead pack started with about eight runners, then gradually dwindled to the five runners who finished the course in under 23 minutes. Zerzan’s sizeable lead was created in the final mile after she started her kick on the hill.

“She is just tough,” McGuirk commented. “She does like a difficult course. A hill with one mile to go is to her advantage. When she went (started her kick), she was gone.”

While Zerzan led the Bearcats with a first place finish, the other Willamette runners in the women’s race helped secure the team title. They virtually ran in their own pack, along with several other runners. WU’s second through fifth runners crossed the finish line within an 11.6-second span from Jena Winger (So., Bonney Lake,WA/Sumner HS) in 15th place at 23:35.13 to Elizabeth Hart (Sr., Spokane, WA/Lewis & Clark HS) in 20th place at 23:46.73. In between, Maddie Coffman (So., Boise, ID/Boise HS) finished 17th in 23:39.63 and Ali Maki (So., Shoreview, MN/Mounds View HS) took 18th in 23:42.83. Among scorers, Winger was 13th, while Coffman took 15th, Maki was 16th and Hart was 18th.

“If we run our top people in 20th place or better, with Sarah at #1, it’s going to give us a chance to qualify (for the National Championships),” McGuirk said he told the WU women’s team before the race. “That whole group (WU’s second through fifth runners) stayed within a few seconds of each other the whole way.”

Also running solid races for Willamette were Katrina Brett (Jr., Longview, WA/Mark Morris HS), who claimed 22nd place in 23:50.23, and Edith Polanco (So., Salem, OR/McKay HS), who took 29th place in 24:05.68. Brett and Polanco ran with the Willamette pack for most of the race, before Polanco, who has been battling illness longer than the rest of the team, had to back off a bit. She still finished high on the result sheet, which included 112 entrees in the women’s race.

In the men’s race, Willamette’s depth also prevailed. Colorado College took first, fourth and fifth in the individual standings, but placed fourth in the team standings at 98, after its next two runners finished 42nd and 46th. Occidental was led by individuals in third and sixth place, but slipped to second place as a team when its third through fifth runners combined to add 78 points to the score. Willamette’s third through fifth runners combined for a score of 58. Regional host Claremont-Mudd-Scripps took third place in the team standings at 92.

Batch’s eight place finish for Willamette was followed by Travis Harris (Sr., Bellingham, WA/Sehome HS), who took 10th place in 25:36.0. Lucas Nebert (Jr., Cincinnati, OH/Wyoming HS) finished in 15th place for the Bearcats at 25:53.41, while Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (So., Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas HS) was 24th at 26:01.25, just a quarter-second in front of Josh Clough (So., Auburn, WA/Auburn Riverside HS) in 25th at 26:01.50. Among scorers at the meet, Harris was ninth, Nebert was 13th, Knutson-Lombardo took 22nd and Clough placed 23rd.

“A couple of guys didn’t have a great day,” McGuirk said, “but the other guys filled in and took up the slack. Our guys were out there in the top 20 and we had an edge throughout the whole race.”

Harris, who was running in a race for only the third time this season due to injury, was Willamette’s second finisher and was in front of the top finisher for 10 other teams.

“He ran a great race,” McGuirk said of Harris’ efforts.

With several other teams entering two or three very successful runners, Willamette’s victory required quality running from the Bearcats who crossed the finish line after Harris. Nebert followed closely behind Harris, while Knutson-Lombardo and Clough maintained times in the top quarter of the results sheet.

“They were far enough up (in front of other runners) to hang on and secure the victory,” McGuirk said regarding Knutson-Lombardo and Clough.

Completing Willamette’s seven-man team were Kyle Kotaich (Fr., Florence, OR/Suislow HS) and Alex Jimenez (So., Parkdale, OR/Hood River Valley HS). Kotaich finished in 35th place with a time of 26:26.60. Jimenez ran the course in 26:43.95 and took 45th place in the field of 111 runners.

McGuirk said the Bearcats will spend Thursday, Nov. 16 traveling to Ohio for the National Championships before taking a practice run on the course on Friday, Nov. 17, then competing on Saturday. Last year, the Willamette women’s team placed 14th and the Bearcat men’s team took 16th. Zerzan earned All-America honors by earning 25th place in the individual standings.