By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
Since 1997, the women’s cross country team has been on a streak it would like to reverse-never finishing better than third at the South Central Regional Meet, from which the top two teams advance to the Division II Cross Country National Championships.
The Wildcats will try to reverse that streak Saturday as the men’s and women’s teams compete in the region meet in Commerce, but head coach Jon Murray said the task of the women’s team won’t be easy.
“They have their work cut out ahead of them,” Murray said. “They’re going to have to perform very well on that day to make it in the top two. I anticipate 30 points being the difference between the top five schools.”
The ACU women are ranked 25th in the nation and third in the final region poll, behind Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern State.
The prospect of advancing to nationals, Murray said, should help his team in Saturday’s race.
“It’s a great goal for them,” he said. “I think they’re highly motivated to perform, so I anticipate a good effort from everybody, and we’ll just kind of see what happens.”
Murray said he’s confident that at the very least, ACU sophomore frontrunner Yuliya Stashkiv should be the top individual in the women’s race.
“It’s a pretty good chance she’s going to win,” Murray said.
The men’s team, ranked No. 2 nationally and first in the region, will seek its fourth straight South Central Region title and sixth straight nationals berth. Helping the team for the first time in several meets will be senior Jean-Marie Ndikumana, who returns to the top five runners after an Achilles injury and surgery.
“Having Jean-Marie back helps boost the morale and the attitude of what we are going to be able to do,” Murray said. “The reality is that they probably know that we’re still pretty good without Jean-Marie, so this is just business as normal for us.”
Though he lists Ndikumana, a consistent third or fourth runner before his injury, as about 80 percent going into the region meet, Murray said that a strong top four runners should carry his team to victory.
“I think it’s just a matter of the guys going in there and taking care of their work,” Murray said. “We should be OK.”
As for Saturday’s conditions, the main enemy could be a 20 percent chance of showers. The course, Murray said, should suit his teams just fine.
“It’s flat,” he said. “The conference course was flat, and the [Commerce] coach said this one is flatter. If it doesn’t rain a lot, I anticipate some decent times.”