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Raider men, women ready for NAIA Championships

LAWRENCE, Kan. — By the time the biggest day of home NAIA playoff events that Southern Oregon University has ever seen gets started, one group of Raiders hopes to have already done some major damage on the national stage today about 1,800 miles east of Ashland.

The second-ranked SOU men and 16th-ranked SOU women qualified full squads to the NAIA Cross Country Championships in the same season for the second time in school history. Both are coming off their best races of the season— a seventh consecutive Cascade Conference championship for the Raider men and a surprise second-place finish for the women, who had to push aside two teams ranked ahead of them to accomplish that.

The festivities, held just outside of Lawrence, Kan., at Rim Rock Farm (which has previously been the site of NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II and Big 12 championships), will begin at 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time with the 5,000-meter women’s race. The men’s 8K, which SOU won for the first time in 2010, begins at 9:45 a.m. Pacific.

About the women’s field: SOU moved up seven spots in the final rankings due to its performance at the CCC meet and received one of 11 at-large bids to the race (the final at-large was awarded to the No. 25 team). The field includes 37 teams — up five from last season thanks to new qualifying standards that limited unattached individuals — and 84 individuals.

British Columbia is the two-time defending champion and heavy favorite to win again. Dordt (Iowa) is ranked second, and CCC champion Northwest Christian is third. BC’s Maria Bernard was the highest 2013 finisher among returners in third place.

SOU women’s championship history: The Raiders last appeared as a team in 2010, their first-ever team trip, when a seventh-place finish and the men’s team’s title gave SOU a combined championship. Summer Cano was a freshman on that team and led SOU individually with a 37th-place finish.

A banged-up Cano joined Rebecca Lupescu at the 2013 championships, where Lupescu was 69th and Cano 81st, and those two have been SOU’s rocks this season. Cano, who has led the Raiders in all five of their races, became a repeat all-conference performer two weeks ago with a third-place showing at the CCC Championships, and Lupescu joined her on the All-CCC team by finishing 12th. Cano’s time of 17:58 and Lupescu’s of 18:34 were both improvements of over 40 seconds from September’s CCC preview meet.

Each of SOU’s other representatives will be making their first appearances on the NAIA stage. Newcomers Karen Silvas and Jessa Perkinson were 18th and 19th at the CCC Championships and have been in the mix all season. Aspen Abbott, Jessie Rozario and Kimberly Nava have been steady and at their best lately.

About the men’s field: SOU earned the CCC’s automatic berth in becoming one of the 36 teams at the NAIA Championships. College of Idaho, Concordia, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Tech got at-large bids, giving the CCC more representatives than any other conference.

The field, which also includes 76 individuals, is headlined by defending champion Oklahoma City, which has held the top spot in the NAIA rankings for the duration of the season. The Stars were ranked second to SOU coming into the 2013 race but finished with four All-Americans while compiling only 77 points to SOU’s 124. They are led by Kenyan Peter Koskey, who was eighth last season.

The Raiders, who have won all five of their races handily in 2014, will also be challenged by third-ranked St. Francis (Ill.), No. 4 Tennessee Wesleyan and No. 5 Indiana Wesleyan.

SOU men’s championship history: This marks the seventh consecutive season the SOU men have qualified as a team. The Raiders’ worst finish during the stretch was fourth in 2008, and they’ve been second the last two seasons.

All those appearances make for a wealth of experience within the lineup. This is All-American Eric Ghelfi’s fourth time at nationals, Jared Hixon’s third and Kevin Jorgensen’s second. Those three were 20th, 36th and 78th last season, respectively, on a team led by Eric Avila, SOU’s first individual champion since 1978. All of them were all-conference performers two weeks ago as Jorgensen placed fourth (25:00), Hixon fifth (25:00) and Ghelfi ninth (25:09).

Max Runia, a sophomore, has been another pleasant surprise and led the Raiders by cracking the top three at the CCC Championships in 24:55. The other three Raiders slated to run Saturday were aslo all-conference (top 12) as SOU dominated the CCC meet with 29 points to runner-up Eastern Oregon’s 57.