For the first time in school history, the Southern Oregon University cross country team will enter the national meet with a No. 1 ranking and a giant target on its collective back.
That's just fine with second-year coach Brent Ericksen, but excuse him for experiencing a little pre-race angst anyway.
"I'm a little worried right now," he said before the team departed for the meet in Vancouver, Wash. "To be honest, I wish we were a little healthier. So yeah, I'm a little worried.
"We're going to have to have a very good if not perfect race to win a national championship."
If they can pull off a perfect race, then the Raider men will have a perfect record to complement their perfect ranking.
They'll get the chance on Saturday, when seven Raiders will be a part of a field that pits 332 of the best runners in the nation against each other in the NAIA championships.
"It's going to be a zoo out there," Ericksen said. "It's an incredible race to watch, but whenever you have that many fast runners against each other at one time, it gets a little crazy."
Of the seven Raiders racing, only two of them were a part of last year's squad that finished fourth in the nation. David Laney — who has emerged as the team's fastest runner after winning the conference meet in a landslide — and Ryan Ghelfi return to join Hector Aleman, Zach Elliott, Dennis McCaffrey, Andrew Milne and Ryan Sorenson.
Laney, a junior who was recently name the Cascade Conference's Athlete of the Year, finished the CCC Championships in 24 minutes and 44 seconds — 16 seconds faster than anyone else.
"He's in a different realm right now," Ericksen said of Laney. "He won that race by so much that at the end of the race he was kind of looking around and going, 'Where is everybody?' He said he was going to ask me if he should take it easy at the end of the race, and he eventually did shut it down."
Laney had the fourth-best time among Raiders at last year's national race, but his time then was 25:42, or exactly 58 seconds more than his time at the conference championships last year. That improvement is what makes him one of the fastest runners in the country, and a top-ten hopeful according to Ericksen.
The biggest surprise, though, has been McCaffrey, an Ashland High product who joined the SOU program last spring after transferring from the University of Oregon.
Coming into the year, Ericksen said he expected McCaffrey to rotate in and out of the top seven throughout the year.
Now, he has not only locked down a spot in the top group, but is heavily depended on as the Raiders' number two runner.
After the original No. 2, junior Chris Paterson, was injured for the season, McCaffrey eventually took over his spot and notched a fifth-place finish at the CCC meet with a time of 25:05.
"Honestly, I had no expectations for Dennis at the beginning of the year," Ericksen said. "I thought maybe we work him in there once in a while, but now this is a guy who we need to do well in order to finish where we want to.
"What he's done has been really, really special."
Ericksen said McCaffrey has raced stronger and with more confidence every week, but worries going into the final weekend of the season that some nagging injuries might catch up with him. All the wet and rainy courses the Raiders have raced on this year, he says, have caused some extra stress on the lower legs of some of the runners.
McCaffrey has therefore not been able to run every day, and Ericksen has been forced to get creative with different training regimens to keep his team both in shape and healthy.
"When Dennis is out there, he just gets right up to the front and doesn't seem to even think about being hurt," he said. "He's such a confident runner, he can do that, but I know I worry a lot more than he does."
On the women's side, SOU's appearance in the top-25 was not enough to earn them an at-large team birth for the race, but they will be represented by freshman Seena Frantz.
Frantz, another Ashland product, took fourth in the conference meet with a time of 18:26. Ericksen expects her to compete for a spot in the top-30 and potentially All-American status.
Josh McDermott is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at email@example.com.