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Perfect end in sight for harriers

It's pretty amazing when good gets better, especially — at just the right moment.

For Raider senior Sean Peterson, now couldn't be a more — perfect time for him to be running the best times he's ever put out and — for SOU to finally have a talented and deep squad of harriers because — it gives him the opportunity to have a great finish with a program he — has help develop over the past five years.

"I've been waiting for this team," Peterson said. "It's — nice because I get to end it on top. I'm thankful for that."

Ranked No. 11 in the NAIA as of October 15, the Raider — men's cross country team has bested every team in Cascade Conference at — least once this season - including No. 5 Eastern Oregon and 25th-ranked — Western Baptist - and topped everyone in NAIA Region I except No. 2 Simon — Fraser.

"It's years of hard work," Raider senior Travis Floeck — said. "We've been fortunate enough to pick up a couple of new recruits — and get a couple of transfers. But really, I think with Sean and me and — the people who've been on the team for three of four years ... the success — is just feeding off the successes we've had."

When Peterson and Floeck, both 22, joined the Raider ranks — as freshmen in the fall of 2000, Grier Gatlin was entering his second — year as head coach. SOU hadn't qualified as a team to the national meet — in modern memory, boasted just seven members and hadn't even beaten rival — Eastern

Oregon since 1994.

Even though the timing may be bittersweet, the chance — for Peterson and Floeck to round out their collegiate careers together — with this success means a lot to the pair. This year it would take a lot — for the Raider men to not finish in the top four at regionals and qualify — as a team to nationals.

"I think, 'Wow, it would have been so nice to be on such — a good team as a freshman,'" Floeck said. "But really, I feel like me — and Sean and Grier — have helped build the program."

In a month, everything they have worked toward for the — past five years will culminate with the NAIA national meet in Louisville, — Kent., where the team has a good look at a top-10 finish.

"Having been with them for five years now, we've definitely — turned a corner and have a good team," Gatlin said. "He [Peterson] and — Travis have both been patient. It's paid off, finally."

A steep climb

Although Peterson now has the second-fastest time on the — Raider cross country team this season - 25:27, second to sophomore Trevor — Palmer's 25:14 - and intends on besting his 12th-place finish at the regional — meet two years ago, cross country hasn't always been so kind to him.

As a freshman, the La Salle High grad struggled to adjust — to the SOU program and even considered quitting the track team during — winter term of his first year.

"I came and I hadn't been in a good program before or — with other talented runners," Peterson explained. "My habits kind of crossed — over and I was barely getting through workouts. It was tough."

When Peterson finally got his head on straight - he returned — from winter break and found he was so out of shape he had a difficult — time keeping up with the team on easy run days - he decided he was "just — going to be committed to it from them on."

That spring, he shaved 16 seconds off of his 1,500-meter — time and raced at nationals in that event.

"I was interesting, a whole new concept I hadn't grasped — until that point," Peterson said.

As a senior, that growth has propelled him to a level — where he can find the motivation to train, even when it means he has to — do it alone because the class requirements for his degree in graphic design — and minor in video production conflict with practice times.

"Kids just, they get older and they mature," Gatlin said. — "Sean knows how to work hard."

One more jewel —

There's not much Peterson hasn't accomplished on the Southern — Oregon University cross country and track and field teams.

Peterson owns Raider track records in the 1,500 meters — (3:51.81) and the 4x800-meter relay (7:38.55 with Palmer, Dusty Waugh — and Jeff Olson), has raced twice at the NAIA track and field national — championships and once at cross country nationals.

At this point, though, he would really love to triumph — as a team so he could share the experience with the guys he's trained — with for years.

"I think everything's coming together," Peterson said, — explaining that the top four Raider harriers have gotten more consistent — and the fifth-through-tenth runners are basically interchangeable. "To — have that type of depth is going to be huge when we get to regionals or — nationals. We're a top-10 team [in the NAIA] for sure and on a really — good day, we're a top-5 team."

The team's goal to win the conference is attainable, Gatlin — claims, and nationals appears to be a realistic step for SOU, especially — because the team has finally attracted the attention of the national raters. — For years, the program has felt overlooked and, because at-large bids — to nationals are based on the NAIA rankings, the Raiders have been within — seconds of a trip to the championship meet.

"We still have that chip on our shoulders," the coach — said. "At this point, we'd really have to blow it at the conference meet — to not go to nationals."