Willamette Runners Prepare for Success at NCAA Cross Country Regional

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University men’s and women’s cross country teams are ready to run at the NCAA Division III West Regional, set for Saturday, Nov. 11 at Prado Park in Chino, Calif. Both of Willamette’s teams are looking to repeat as West Regional champions. The Bearcats have won four consecutive Regional titles in men’s cross country, plus three consecutive titles in women’s cross country.

Leading Willamette’s efforts will be Northwest Conference champions Sarah Zerzan (Jr., San Carlos, CA/Notre Dame HS) and Ian Batch (Jr., Eagle, ID/Capital HS). Zerzan won the NWC women’s championship with a time of 20:32.66 on the 6-kilometer course at the Pacific Lutheran University Golf Course. She won the title by 53.14 seconds over the second place finisher. Batch took first place in the men’s race with a time of 24:30.70 over the 8-kilometer course. He completed the race with a 15.19-second margin of victory.

The Bearcats are proud to have runners who will battle for the Region’s individual championships. Even so, Willamette’s runners are focused on qualifying for the NCAA Division III National Championships as a team. First and second place teams at each of eight regional sites will automatically qualify for the event. An additional 16 teams placing third, fourth or fifth at a regional will be selected as at-large entries. Willamette possesses quality depth among the top seven runners on both of its teams, so the Bearcats should present strong challenges for team titles at the West Regional.

“Our strength is in our numbers,” Willamette Head Coach Matt McGuirk said. “We’re going to take seven really good runners. The main objective is to get the teams qualified (for Nationals) ... we need to go down there and try to win the meet.”

Joining Zerzan for Willamette in the women’s race will be one senior, one junior and four sophomores. The senior will be Elizabeth Hart (Spokane, WA/Lewis & Clark HS) and the junior will be Katrina Brett (Longview, WA/Mark Morris HS). Sophomores slated to run for the Bearcats are Maddie Coffman (Boise, ID/Boise HS), Ali Maki (Shoreview, MN/Mounds View HS), Edith Polanco (Salem, OR/McKay HS) and Jena Winger (Bonney Lake, WA/Sumner HS).

“It’s going to be us and UPS again,” McGuirk said regarding a rematch of the Northwest Conference meet on Oct. 28, where the Bearcats edged the University of Puget Sound for their fifth straight NWC team title.

“Colorado College is always the unknown (at the Regional meet) and always competes well in Regionals,” McGuirk noted, adding that he thinks a couple more NWC teams should be listed with Willamette and UPS as having the potential to run well in the women’s race.

Individually, Zerzan will likely receive her strongest competition from Avery Kelly (So.) from the University of Redlands. Kelly won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title by a margin similar to Zerzan’s win at the NWC Championships.

Willamette, which typically has its second through seventh runners within a short distance of each other, finished more spread out than usual at the Northwest Conference championships, but still won the women’s team title. McGuirk is hoping the Bearcats can reduce the distance between the second and seventh runners to take advantage of Willamette’s depth at the West Regional meet.

Batch is one of two juniors competing for the Willamette men’s team this weekend. The Bearcats also will be represented by one senior, three sophomores and a freshman. WU’s senior runner is Travis Harris (Bellingham, WA/Sehome HS). Joining Batch as a junior on this weekend’s competition roster is Lucas Nebert (Cincinnati, OH/Wyoming HS). Sophomores are Alex Jimenez (Parkdale, OR/Hood River Valley HS), Josh Clough (Auburn, WA/Auburn Riverside HS) and Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas HS). Freshman Kyle Kotaich (Florence, OR/Suislaw HS), who has achieved an outstanding first season so far, rounds out the team.

As with the women’s squad, the men’s team should benefit from its depth. Willamette is one of several men’s teams with the ability to battle for the team title.

“On the men’s side, there are a lot of good teams,” McGuirk said. “UPS is probably the most complete team other than ourselves.”

McGuirk also provided positive comments about Occidental College, Colorado College, Pomona-Pitzer and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, with Pomona and Claremont competing close to home. Occidental will feature two national-caliber runners, while Pomona-Pitzer will be led by senior Will Leer, one of the favorites to place in the top three at the National Championships. Colorado College has three runners who are among the top competitors in the Region and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps is always strong, but didn’t run its best at the SCIAC meet.

Willamette’s men put together a solid effort that resulted in their sixth straight team title at the Northwest Conference Championships. At the NWC meet, Willamette finished the men’s race with just 45 seconds separating its top seven runners. The Bearcats took seven of the top 14 places among 81 runners in the men’s race.

“We’ve got to do that again (a 45-second spread between the top seven runners), or even better, in order for us to get a qualifying spot for nationals,” McGuirk said.

The West Regional races will both be held Saturday morning. The men’s race (8K) is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. (PST), with the women’s race (6K) set to follow at 10 a.m. (PST). In addition to determining which teams automatically qualify for the NCAA Division III National Championships, the Regional also will qualify seven individual runners for the National Championships. The seven runners will be determined after all 16 automatic qualifying berths and 16 at-large berths into the team competition have been filled.

This year’s National Championships are set for Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Voice of America Park in West Chester, Ohio. In 2005, the Willamette women’s team placed 14th in NCAA Division III, while the men’s team took 16th place.