ELSAH, Illinois — Patience clearly was a virtue for the Southern Oregon University men’s cross country team Saturday at the NAIA Cross Country Championships.
The Raiders had neither the big names nor the flashy finishes, but their measured persistence paid off in the program’s second national championship — even though SOU’s best finisher, Connor Cushman, placed 16th.
“I don’t know that it was so much we came on in the last mile,” said Raider coach Grier Gatlin. “It’s a very difficult course. If you weren’t patient, you were in trouble. A lot of guys were gassed in the last 400 or 500 meters.”
In the women’s meet, the Raiders’ Jessa Perkinson became the team’s first two-time All-American when she placed third, leading SOU to seventh place, which matched its best in history.
The SOU men were ranked third entering the meet, but they nickel and dimed the rest of the field to death at North Farms Cross Country Course.
Cushman was the only All-American (top 30), completing the 8,000-meter course in 24 minutes 59.8 seconds.
SOU prevailed because its other four scorers closed within the next 35 seconds: Dylan Alexander was 33rd (25:18.4), Noah Oberriter 37th (25:20.7), Ray Schireman 44th (25:31.1) and Kevin Poteracke 47th (25:34.9).
SOU accrued 122 team points, edging out Saint Francis (Ill.) with 148 points and British Columbia with 152.
“That was our plan,” said Gatlin. “When we saw the course, and I had done a little research on it, if you were patient until a mile to go, the team that was the most patient would probably win it. And it was us.”
It was hardly apparent, however.
When Schireman, a North Medford product, came in, Gatlin asked him what place he was in. The coach had tried to keep track, but viewing areas were hard to come by.
When Schireman said 30th or 40th, Gatlin knew there was a chance.
Chip timing indicated the Raiders were 18th after one mile, fourth after the second, and second the next couple miles.
An indication of how taxing the course was, said Gatlin, was Cushman’s race. He was 107th after a mile — 91 spots behind his eventual placing.
“And he didn’t speed up,” said Gatlin. “He had even splits every mile the whole way. That shows you how many people died off.”
The Raiders’ fifth man, Poteracke, “ran probably his best race of the year,” said Gatlin, even though it wasn’t his best time. “But for that course, to run that type of race in that event today, I thought that was great.”
British Columbia, ranked No. 1 before the race, featured the fourth-, fifth- and 26th-place performers, but its fourth and fifth scorers placed 62nd and 108th.
Like SOU, second-ranked Saint Francis produced just one All-American, in 25th place, but its fourth and fifth fell to 53rd and 64th.
The average time of SOU’s scorers (25:21) was seven seconds behind British Columbia’s (25:13) and six seconds better than Saint Francis (25:27).
SOU’s sixth and seventh runners, Caleb Diaz (26:12.3) and Matthew Williams (26:25.4), placed 126th and 167th.
Bacone (Okla.) senior Jackson Thomas claimed the individual title in 23:50.2, beating out William Carey (Miss.) junior Geoffrey Kipchumba by seven seconds.
The Oklahoma City Stars had won the previous three championships. SOU joined them as the only active NAIA teams with multiple titles.
The Raiders’ first crown came in 2010, and since then they’d gotten acquainted with heartbreak. Their 2011 team was third in the team standings, their next three teams finished second, and the 2015 squad was No. 2 in the polls entering the national meet but got hit by illness that sidelined three runners and diminished the effort of a couple others, dropping them to 23rd overall.
The SOU women made history of their own.
Perkinson continued to distance herself as the most prolific women's runner SOU has produced, Kayle Blackmore gave the team a pair of All-Americans in the same race for the first time, and the Raiders overachieved again by taking seventh after starting out ranked 12th.
Perkinson, a junior from Roseburg, finished third with a time of 17:13.5 for 5,000 meters at North Farms.
“She ran really smart as well,” said Gatlin. “With only one year of high school cross country, she’s still getting her feet wet in how to run the nuances of the sport.”
Perkinson had been reluctant to run up front, he said, but that was a point of emphasis Saturday.
“She’s just not convinced she should run near the front,” said Gatlin, adding that Perkinson is more than capable and belongs with the lead group. “It worked. She got out of all the traffic and it worked really well. The two people who beat her were really, really good.”
Perkinson placed 13th a year ago and now owns SOU's two best finishes; she's the first two-time All-American in Raider history; and, combined with three All-America plaques earned last track season, she's up to a total of five.
Blackmore, meanwhile, claimed 24th place in 17:46.1 a year after finishing 90th. The sophomore from Anchorage, Alaska, is the sixth Raider to become an All-American and the third in the last three years.
SOU's next three scorers were Natalie Berania in 90th place (18:43.4), Bree Weber in 125th (19:01.7) and Ariana Toland in 141st (19:08.9). Aspen Abbott (19:12.5) and Jassmine Reill(19:53.7) were 153rd and 249th, respectively, in the 334-person field.
The Raiders matched their best finish of seventh, achieved in 2010.
“It was a great day for both programs,” said Gatlin.
Northwest Christian, of the Cascade Conference, was dethroned as the women’s champion after topping the rankings all year. British Columbia won with 90 points, followed by Northwest Christian’s 135.
Oklahoma City's Aminat Olowara, a junior from Nigeria, cruised to the individual crown in 16:24.3 — more than 44 seconds ahead of runner-up Hannah Segrave from Milligan (Tenn.).