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SOU men take aim at national title

For the second year in a row, while one of the biggest days of home NAIA playoff events in school history unfolds on the campus of Southern Oregon University, the Raider cross country teams will have already put in their championship work some 2,800 miles east.

At McAlpine Park in Charlotte, N.C., the second-ranked SOU men's team will attempt to win its first NAIA title since 2010 with an 8,000-meter race that starts Saturday at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time. The women's 5K will begin at approximately 8:30 a.m., as the 21st-ranked Raiders attempt to improve on their 18th-place finish of last year.

This marks the third time in school history that both Raider teams advanced — the men after winning their eighth straight Cascade Conference title two weeks ago, and the women after taking fourth in a loaded CCC field.

"With 330-plus bodies in both races, this is just a completely different animal (than the CCC Championships), and that's one of the reasons we raced at Stanford earlier in the season to get that big-race experience," SOU head coach Grier Gatlin said. "It's going to be really crowded – especially the first 1,000 meters to a mile – and I don't think you necessarily take a different approach but you're aware of it and draw in your experience."

The top 30 finishers in each race will be considered All-Americans.

SOU MEN'S ENTRIES: Zach Boyd-Helm, Connor Cushman, Caleb Diaz, Jared Hixon, Trevor Lynn, Ray Schireman, Eli Stillman. Alternate: Noah Oberitter.

MEN'S FIELD AT GLANCE: By way of winning their 10th conference championship, the Raiders took one of 23 automatic team bids to the national meet. The entire field includes 36 teams and 84 who advanced individually for a total of 336 qualified runners.

SOU was ranked No. 1 all season until the latest poll, when two-time defending champion Oklahoma City University was given the top spot. The Lights garnered 11 first-place votes to become the favorite, while SOU got four and third-ranked Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) got the other.

"OKC is very good, Lewis-Clark State is very good, and I think all three of us have a chance to win it with a handful of others in the mix," SOU head coach Grier Gatlin said. "I don't know for sure what the (McAlpine Park) course is like, but it sounds like it's more conducive to middle-distance guys like Boyd-Helm and Hixon having better days. That'll be important for us."

SOU MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: The Raiders have qualified as a team eight straight years, and their worst finish during that stretch has been fourth place in 2008. Since then they've taken third place in 2009, first in '10, third in '11, and second the last three seasons.

SOU WOMEN'S ENTRIES: Aspen Abbott, Kayle Blackmore, Marisa D'Orfani, Margarita Lauer, Rebecca Lupescu, Braana Weber. Alternate: Emily Lamb.

WOMEN'S FIELD AT A GLANCE: Ranked 21st in the final NAIA rankings, the Raiders received the eighth of 12 at-large team bids to the championship race. In total, the field includes 36 teams and 82 additional runners who advanced individually, meaning 334 racers will toe the starting line.

SOU WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: Last year's appearance was SOU's third as a team. The first was in 2010, when the Raiders entered with a No. 10 ranking and finished seventh. In 2014 the Raiders were No. 16 and finished 21st, and Summer Cano led the team with a 25th-place finish to become SOU's first women's All-American since Seena Frantz in 2009.