Bearcats are Prepared to Run at NWC Championships

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University men's and women's cross country teams are ready to start the championship portion of the season with the Northwest Conference Championships on Saturday, Nov. 1 in Walla Walla, Wash. Willamette is the seven-time defending champion in the men's competition and the six-time defending champion in the women's race.

Both events -- the men's 8-kilometer race and the women's 6-kilometer race -- will be held at the Veterans Memorial Golf Course. The men's race is slated to get underway at 11 a.m., with the women's race scheduled to start at 12 p.m.

Although Willamette has strung together conference titles in recent seasons, the Bearcats aren't entering this year's NWC Meet as heavy favorites. By the same token, the Bearcats can't be omitted from any title discussions either.

On the women's side, there are three or four teams expected to battle for first place. Whitworth University is ranked second in the West Region, with Whitman College in third and Willamette in fourth. The men's race will feature Willamette and Whitworth, with Lewis & Clark working to join the favorites. The Bearcats are #1 in the West Region, while Whitworth is third and L&C is fifth.

Willamette has runners who will be in the battle for the individual titles as well. Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (Sr., Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas HS) of Willamette is the defending champion, who won the 2007 title with a time of 25:00.34. Josh Clough (Sr., Auburn, WA/Auburn Riverside HS) placed sixth in the NWC last season in 25:23.97.

Kyle Kotaich (Jr., Florence, OR/Siuslaw HS) was 14th and Chris Platano (Jr., Myrtle Point, OR/Myrtle Point HS) was 18th for the Bearcats at last year's NWC Meet. The four upperclassmen will be joined by three sophomores and three freshmen on WU's 10-man roster this weekend.

According to Head Coach Matt McGuirk, the sophomores have significantly improved over a year ago and the freshmen have surpassed expectations. The entire lineup has the chance to earn one of the top five finishes that will contribute directly to Willamette's score.

"The team chemistry on the men's team has been the best it's every been," McGuirk said. "We have at least two key guys in every academic class. We need our ten runners up in it with the other top guys in the conference. If we do that, we should be OK."

Knutson-Lombardo has not raced this season. Even so, he has recovered from injury and has been practicing at full strength.

"I'm not worried about his lack of racing," McGuirk said. "He's a solid guy who can help us. He realizes that even as the defending conference champion he's probably not the favorite to repeat. He just wants to get out there and do what he can to help the team."

The favorite this year might well be Francis Reynolds from the University of Puget Sound. Also expected to challenge at the front are Nick Gallagher from Whitworth and Knutson-Lombardo and Clough from Willamette. Reynolds was 10th, Gallagher finished 14th and Clough was 18th against quality competition at the Charles Bowles Invitational.

Although two-time National Champion Sarah Zerzan '08 has graduated, Willamette still has an exceptional women's team. Leading the way will be Maddie Coffman (Sr., Boise, ID/Boise HS), who took second at the NWC Meet last year with a time of 21:05.80. This year, Coffman won the Willamette Grass Course Meet and the Charles Bowles Invitational. She placed third against strong competition at the Mike Hodges Invitational.

Jena Winger (Sr., Bonney Lake, WA/Sumner HS) was ninth in the NWC last season at 22:00.67. She won the 1,500-meter run, the 5,000-meter run and the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2008 NWC Track and Field Championships.

"It's been nice to watch them (Coffman and Winger) improve over four years," McGuirk noted. "They've made sizable improvements each year. They've become two of the best runners in NCAA Division III."

Several other WU runners provide quality depth that will be needed to retain the NWC crown. Joining Coffman and Winger as runners with previous NWC cross country experience are seniors Ali Maki (Shoreview, MN/Mounds View HS) and Edith Polanco (Salem, OR/McKay HS), along with juniors Molly Lewis (Fox Island, WA/Gig Harbor HS) and Hannah Vietmeier (Shoreline, WA/Shorewood HS).

Coffman and Winger should contend for top finishes. Other runners expected to challenge for the NWC individual title are Kelsey Owens from Pacific University and Marci Klimek of Linfield College. At the Charles Bowles Invitational, Coffman was first, Winger took third, Owens placed sixth and Klimek was seventh.

Coffman and Owens are returning All-America runners. Coffman placed 11th and Owens was 34th at the 2007 NCAA National Championships.

WU's team title hopes involve quality finishes at the front of the field, plus competitive running by the remainder of the team against the other top squads.

"Those runners (after Coffman and Winger) have to run with the Whitworth and Whitman ladies," McGuirk said. "They have to identify the other runners that they have to stay with.

"They all seem to be coming together at the right time," McGuirk said regarding the women's team. "We need to go in there and have our best day and see what happens."

Overall, McGuirk expects a challenging and exciting weekend. He is confident that his teams are ready.

"I'm looking forward to getting on the bus with our kids," he said. "It will be the first time we've had all of our runners healthy and ready to run on both teams."

Willamette's NWC Championship line-ups:

Men's Team -- Josh Clough (Sr.), Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (Sr.), Kyle Kotaich (Jr.), Chris Platano (Jr.), Nick Rebol (So.), Ryan McLaughlin (So.), Stefan Redfield (So.), Ben Donovan (Fr.), Kyle Jackson (Fr.), Leo Castillo (Fr.).

Women's Team -- Maddie Coffman (Sr.), Ali Maki (Sr.), Edith Polanco (Sr.), Jena Winger (Sr.), Molly Lewis (Jr.), Hannah Vietmeier (Jr.), Megan Horning (So.), Tina Patel (So.), Sarah McSweeney (Fr.), Phoebe Tollefson (Fr.).

Maddie Coffman placed second at last year's NWC Meet behind teammate Sarah Zerzan '08.

Maddie Coffman placed second at last year's NWC Meet behind teammate Sarah Zerzan '08.

Tristan Knutson-Lombardo is the defending NWC men's cross country champion.

Tristan Knutson-Lombardo is the defending NWC men's cross country champion.