Willamette Ready to Send Men's and Women's Cross Country Teams to NCAA National Championships

SALEM, ORE. -- After winning West Regional titles last weekend, the Willamette University men’s and women’s cross country teams are ready for the NCAA Division III National Championships, set for this Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Voice of America Park in West Chester, Ohio. The Bearcats automatically qualified both teams for this weekend’s races by winning the Regional championships.

At the National Championships, the men’s race will cover 8 kilometers and will begin at 11 a.m. (EST). The women’s race, covering 6 kilometers, is scheduled to start at 12 p.m. (EST).

“We have to get out reasonably well and we have to help each other throughout the race,” Willamette Head Coach Matt McGuirk said. “We’re taking 14 very good runners this weekend. We don’t have a drop off with our depth, so every runner will be very important in the team scores.”

Willamette will be represented by nearly the same group of athletes who combined to win the Regional team titles. The only change is the addition of Steven Millard (Jr., Port Orchard, WA/South Kitsap HS).

“He’s ready to go,” McGuirk said about Millard. “He ran well at the Northwest Conference meet and he had good training sessions in the rain last week, while the Regional team was competing in sunny California.”

Leading the men’s runners for the Bearcats is NWC individual champion Ian Batch (Jr., Eagle, ID/Capital HS), who placed eighth at the Regional. Also competing for Willamette at the National Championships will be Travis Harris (Sr., Bellingham, WA/Sehome HS), Lucas Nebert (Jr., Cincinnati, OH/Wyoming HS), Josh Clough (So., Auburn, WA/Auburn Riverside HS), Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (So., Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas HS) and Kyle Kotaich (Fr., Florence, OR/Suislaw HS).

On the women’s team, Sarah Zerzan (Jr., San Carlos, CA/Notre Dame HS) is Willamette’s top runner. Zerzan won the West Regional individual title last week and also won the NWC individual championship. She has run consistently strong throughout the season.

“I don’t know how many individual contenders there are, but Sarah certainly has to be one of them,” McGuirk said. “She’s excited about this opportunity for herself, but to be honest, she’s more excited about the team’s successes this season. She pretty much always runs an intelligent race, so I expect her to have a good day on Saturday.”

The Willamette women’s team will support Zerzan and work toward a top 10 team placing with six other runners. They are Elizabeth Hart (Sr., Spokane, WA/Lewis & Clark HS), Katrina Brett (Jr., Longview, WA/Mark Morris HS), Maddie Coffman (So., Boise, ID/Boise HS), Ali Maki (So., Shoreview, MN/Mounds View HS), Edith Polanco (So., Salem, OR/McKay HS) and Jena Winger (So., Bonney Lake, WA/Sumner HS).

Both of the Bearcat cross country teams feature quality depth, with solid runners throughout the line-up. McGuirk hopes that the depth will pay dividends at Nationals, just as it did at the Northwest Conference and West Regional meets. Willamette’s men’s team is ranked #13 in NCAA Division III and the women’s team holds an identical ranking.

“We want to see if we can do better than that (13th place),” McGuirk said. “The goal is always for the team to do well, for all of the runners to do their best and, most importantly, for everyone to have fun and enjoy the experience.”

At the individual level, Zerzan hopes to be in the lead group and have a chance to battle for the national title. She earned All-America status as a sophomore at the National Championships in 2005, when she earned a 25th place finish. Batch also has the skills to place high on the individual results list.

“Our goal for him since last year has always been ‘let’s try to be an All-American’,” McGuirk said, noting that only the top 35 finishers receive All-America status. “He’s had a great race pretty much every time out this season. As long as he goes out and runs hard and finishes strong, he’s going to like the result.”

Willamette’s efforts to achieve high team finishes will require solid efforts throughout the lineup. There are enough competitors in each race, that even a small improvement in a team’s average time can make a big difference in the team standings.

“Ten seconds faster means you move past a lot of people at Nationals,” McGuirk said. “That’s how close it is as runners finish the race.”

McGuirk anticipates an exciting battle between many teams for this year’s top 10 team scores. Calvin College (Mich.) and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse appear to be the strongest men’s teams, while the State University of New York at Geneseo, Amherst College (Mass.), Washington University (Mo.) and Middlebury College (Vt.) look to be the best women’s teams. Even so, Willamette and several other teams in both races should contend for impressive team finishes.

“There seems to be a lot more parity this year,” McGuirk said, noting that in recent years the top five to 10 teams were in a group by themselves. This year, “instead of the usual four or five teams that seem to win trophies every year, there are a lot of teams that have a shot at being up there,” he added.

Willamette’s men’s team has won five consecutive West Regional titles, while the Bearcat women’s team has won four West Regional championships in a row. At last year’s National Championships, the Willamette women’s team placed 14th and the men’s team achieved a 16th place finish.