Raiders head east in search of NAIA glory

The Southern Oregon University cross country team's place in Raider history will come down to an 8,000-meter morning run in Lawrence, Kan., on Saturday at the NAIA National Championships.

The Raider men, who are the top-ranked favorites heading into the race and fresh off their sixth straight Cascade Conference title, should be equipped for such grandiose terms and the nerves that accompany them. All seven runners in their lineup have been on this stage before.

"They're antsy, which seems about right," SOU head coach Grier Gatlin said. "That tells me they're feeling prepared. We feel really good about the team we're sending back."

CCC individual champ Eric Avila is the leader of an SOU pack that is set to include Eric Ghelfi, Tyler VanDyke, Jared Hixon, Hector Aleman, Kevin Jorgensen and Matt Battaglia. Cary Dunagan will make the trip as an alternate.

The men's race will begin at 10:30 a.m. Central Time and the 5,000-meter women's race, which will feature three SOU runners, is scheduled to start at 11:45 a.m.

Rim Rock Farm, located just outside of Lawrence, has hosted the NCAA Division I and II Championships, the Big 12 Championships and three Big Eight Championships since being built in 1974. On Saturday, it will be shared by 321 runners from 96 schools in the men's race and 327 runners from 95 schools in the women's race.

SOU's Alexandra Rudd, Summer Cano and Rebecca Lupescu earned individual berths for the latter with top-15 showings at the conference championships.

"We're excited about the men, but the women have a chance to do really well, too," Gatlin said. "Just like last year, nothing really matters until Saturday morning."

That's when the Raider men finally get their chance to reclaim the title. They came into Vancouver, Wash., with the NAIA's No. 1 ranking but finished runners-up to St. Francis (Ill.), which accumulated 138 points to SOU's 153. St. Francis kept that No. 1 ranking until last week, when Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) knocked them off at the Chicagoland Conference Championships.

Olivet, St. Francis, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) and Oklahoma City now go Nos. 2-5 in the rankings.

The Raiders won their first-ever national championship in 2010. In 2011, Gatlin's first season back at SOU, they were third.

VanDyke was SOU's highest finisher at the 2012 nationals in 19th while Avila was 52nd, Ghelfi 79th and Hixon 94th. Aleman competed for the Raiders at the 2009 championships and Battaglia was in the 2011 lineup.

This season has belonged to Avila, and Gatlin believes he is one of a small handful of runners who have a shot to win individual gold. Avila has dominated his last three races — clearing the field at the conference championships by 16 seconds — and was tops among NAIA runners at the only race he didn't win, the Stanford Invitational.

Kelly Jensen owns the only individual title in SOU history. He won it in 1978.

The Raiders hope the story will be about the pack, though, just like it was at the conference championships where nine Raiders were in the top 15. Ghelfi placed fifth, Hixon seventh, Aleman eighth, Dunagan 10th, Battaglia 12th and VanDyke 13th, and all six came in within the same 26-second time frame.

"The first mile (at nationals) is always really crowded, so managing the crowd and not getting caught up in it is very important," Gatlin said. "We want to stay within our race plan and let our strength, which is our depth and our grouping, do the work. By the fourth mile we still want seven guys together. If we do win, that'll be how it happens."

This will be the third time Rudd has represented the Raider women and the second time for Cano. As freshmen in 2010, Cano was 37th overall and Rudd 170th to help the Raiders win a combined title, and in 2011 Rudd was 57th.

Rudd, Cano and Lupescu were within 15 seconds of each other at the conference championships in 10th, 12th and 15th. Cano led the Raiders in two races this season, doing her best work while leading all non-NCAA Division I runners at the Stanford Invitational, but has lately been battling through injuries.

British Columbia is the top-ranked women's team at the championships, followed by CCC-champ College of Idaho, Biola (Calif.) and Taylor (Ind.).

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