Raiders gear up for NAIA national meet
ASHLAND — The third-ranked Southern Oregon men's cross country team and the 12th-ranked Raider women have some unfinished business to attend to Saturday at the NAIA Championships in Elsah, Illinois.
Illness before last year's meet took three Raider men out of the race completely and hampered a couple others, ruining a shot at their first national title since 2010 and ending a run of six consecutive top-three finishes.
And after a surprise 14th-place national finish in 2015, the women had aspirations two weeks ago of overachieving again at the Cascade Conference Championships, the toughest conference meet in the NAIA, but placed fourth.
Redemption is on the table at the North Farms Cross Country Course, which was named the new location in early October when the NAIA Council of Presidents voted to pull out of Charlotte, N.C. The women's 5,000-meter race begins at 8:30 a.m. PST, the men's 8K will follow at 9:30. For the first time, both races will be streamed live, and free, on the NAIA Network.
The top-30 finishers in each race will be considered All-Americans. Jessa Perkinson is the lone Raider in the lineups who has been a cross country All-American.
SOU ENTRIES: Dylan Alexander, Ryan Alexander, Connor Cushman, Caleb Diaz, Noah Oberriter, Kevin Poteracke, Ray Schireman, Matthew Williams.
FIELD: Oklahoma City is the three-time defending team champion — SOU was second to the Stars for their first two titles — but comes into this year's race ranked 13th, having lost most of its scorers from 2015. The favorite is top-ranked British Columbia, a member of the Association of Independent Institutions and the fifth-place finisher in 2015. UBC owns 20 of the 21 first-place votes in the NAIA Top 25 poll, and second-ranked Saint Francis (Ind.) has the other.
Ranked third in front of Marian (Ind.) and The Master's (Calif.), Southern Oregon is coming off its ninth straight Cascade Conference championship.
"I think we have a shot (at the title), but it's a difficult year to forecast," SOU coach Grier Gatlin said. "There are four or five teams with a chance to win it, but UBC is definitely the team to beat."
RAIDER HISTORY: This is the ninth year in a row that the Raiders have qualified as a team. Until last year's 23rd-place showing, their worst finish during that stretch had been fourth in 2008. They were third in 2009, won their first title in 2010, were third again in 2011, and placed second from 2012-14.
Of the five runners who were healthy enough to race last year for SOU, two are back: Caleb Diaz, who placed 56th, and Connor Cushman, who was 119th. Cushman also went to the 2014 meet as an alternate and, in place of Ray Schireman, placed 108th.
Schireman, a three-time All-CCC performer and the 2015 CCC champion, has missed the last two national meets due to illness. And Dylan Alexander, the 2015 NAIA track 5K champion, missed the 2014 meet and was a redshirt last season.
SOU ENTRIES: Aspen Abbott, Natalie Berania, Kayle Blackmore, Jessa Perkinson, Jassmine Reill, Jocelyn Schmidt, Ariana Toland, Bree Weber*.
FIELD: Following another dominating effort at the Cascade Conference Championships, Northwest Christian remained the unanimous No. 1 and is the favorite to repeat as national champion. Biola (Calif.) is ranked second, British Columbia third and Oklahoma City fourth.
Ranked 12th in the latest poll, the Raiders earned one of 10 at-large bids.
RAIDER HISTORY: The Raiders went into last year's race ranked 21st but took 14th place in their third appearance as a team. Jessa Perkinson placed 13th to become the sixth All-American in SOU history, while Rebecca Lupescu was 51st and Kayle Blackmore 90th.
With another top-30 finish, Perkinson can become the first two-time All-American in team history and earn her fifth All-America plaque overall.