By Taylor Mueller, Athletic Communications Assistant
Head Coach: Kregg Einspahr (23rd year)
2013 Finishes: 3rd in GPAC; 24th at national championships
Key Returners: Josh Allwardt, Charlie Bloomfield, Taylor Mueller, Jordan Potrzeba, Chris Shelton, Ben Sievert
Key Losses: Beau Billings, Hayden Hohnholt
2013 GPAC All-Conference: Beau Billings, Hayden Hohnholt, Jordan Potrzeba, Ben Sievert
2013 NAIA All-America: Ben Sievert
Head Coach: Kregg Einspahr (23rd year)
2013 Finish: 5th in GPAC
Key Returners: Megan Burma, Ashley Canfield, Michaela Curran, Lauren Pankow, Erika Schroeder, Renee Williams, Kim Wood
Key Loss: Jenean Williams
2013 GPAC All-Conference: Renee Williams
Concordia Athletic Hall of Famer Kregg Einspahr returns for his 23rd season at the helm of the cross country program. Heading his lengthy list of achievements are 32 combined national top-25 finishes, nine conference titles five national runner-up claims. This year’s Bulldog cross country hope to add to those impressive totals.
Although they enter the 2014 year without a preseason ranking, the women’s squad is embracing a dark-horse mentality.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people this year,” Einspahr said. “You look at our finish last year and that was one of our poorest in probably nearly 20 years, but we had a lot of youth and bad luck at the end of the season with injuries and sickness. With a year of experience behind us and if we can keep some folks healthy, I think it will be a different game. I think we had some women who really improved over the summer who will make a difference for us.”
Leading the charge for the Bulldog women is the gritty junior and sprinter-turned distance runner, Kim Wood. And while the transition from running blink-of-an-eye races to running with the lead pack of a 5K race hasn’t been easy, Einspahr is confident in his leader.
“She’s had to try to develop into a distance runner and learn how to run a longer race,” Einspahr said. “It’s not been easy for her but she is one of the toughest competitors I have ever coached. She is tougher than nails. She’s got great foot speed, excellent overall body strength and is extremely competitive. She’s really looking to have a breakout season. We need a frontrunner. She’s really committed to doing that.”
Wood won’t be alone, however, in her quest to help bring the Bulldog women their first conference title in nine years. Einspahr noted several other women who should fit in nicely to a winning equation.
“Megan Burma looks like she had a good summer and has improved a lot,” Einspahr said. “Renee Williams should be in the mix for us. Ashley Canfield can help us out. Freshman Emily Sievert looks like she may be able to contribute to our success this season. There are a number of women in the mix. Erika Schroeder ran in our top seven much of the time last year. Beth Rasmussen, who ran track this past year for us, has never ran cross country but she looks like she’s going to be able to contribute in our top seven as well. I’m not quite sure how everybody’s going to stack up when we get into race mode.”
Wood is optimistic about the new season, and noted that there are a couple new faces that will certainly provide support to the Bulldog team.
“I’m really excited for this season,” Wood said. “We have two new freshmen who came in, Emily Sievert and Lauren Wilcox, and I think they’re really hard workers. They’ve been doing great in practice, so it will be really exciting to see what we can do this year with them. I’m excited to see where we’ll be in our upcoming meets.”
As for the competition, Doane and Dordt serve as favorites at the top of the conference. Last year’s GPAC champion, Dordt, returns eight of its top nine runners, each of whom placed in the top 21 at the 2013 conference meet. Likewise, Doane returns each of its top seven runners.
Despite the stiff competition, Wood’s goals and hopes for the team are unwavering.
“I think a good goal for the women’s cross country team would be to win the conference championship,” Wood said. “Doane and Dordt are some really good teams so hopefully we can give them a run for their money and come out on top.”
Wood also noted that with a lengthy season full of long runs, intense workouts and fatigued bodies, a confident mental mindset will be crucial if the team hopes to achieve its lofty goals.
“I think some areas we can improve on would be just staying positive,” Wood said. “Sometimes on our long runs it gets hard so I think keeping our attitudes positive, it really just helps and that will contribute to our team success.”
Ranked 21st in the preseason polls, the boys in blue are not shying away from high expectations of their own.
Led by their undisputed captain Ben Sievert, the Bulldogs boast one of the conference’s top front runners in the 2013 All-American. And while putting the bow on his stellar four-year career will surely be an excitement to watch, Einspahr couldn’t be more pleased to have the senior to lead his men’s squad.
“Last season gave him a lot of confidence,” Einspahr said. “I think it helped going down early in the season last year to the NAIA preseason meet in Lawrence. He did really well in that meet and got a feel for the course. I think that’s going to give him a lot of confidence going into this year.”
“He’s a real steady runner,” Einspahr said. “He’s responsible. He’s fairly resistant to injury, which is a key for sustained success in running. He’s just very coachable and easy to get along with. He’s a great teammate. He helps me out a lot in terms of working with the team. He’s really an all-around good guy.”
Sievert is anxious to get the season underway, and to avenge a disappointing 2013 team finish. To do so, he’s going to need some help.
“I’m really excited,” Sievert said. “Obviously coming off a long summer of training by yourself it’s really great to be back with the team. Coming off last year (and) finishing third in the conference when we were hoping to win it kind of left a bad taste in our mouths so we’re really excited to get back out there and compete for the championship this year.”
With the departure of three key runners from last year’s national qualifying team, it’s finding a way to compete for a GPAC title and return to the national championships for a third-straight year that has left rather large shoes to be filled and questions that demand answers.
“Coach did a great job of bringing in some freshmen,” Sievert said. “They’ve been showing a lot of guts out there in the workouts, circuits and everything, so they look like they could be ready to fill those gaps.”
As for returners, Sievert is hoping that the veterans will provide a boost, and while overall he likes what he sees, he noted that there is some room for improvements to be made.
“I think one of the biggest things is that, we’ve got a really good front pack going right now. Josh (Allwardt) and Taylor (Mueller) have been running really well this summer and they’ve continued that through the first couple weeks of practice. Mathias (Wollberg) has been up front as well and they’ve been running great. Then we’ve got a really good second pack as well, there’s just a little too big of a gap there right now. As the season progresses, I know that’s going to shrink which will really help in meets because a lot of times the meet is won or lost with your (number) four, five and six runners. So if we can just close that gap and keep everyone working hard, which I know they will, it will be a really good improvement for us.”
Einspahr provided his own take as to how he sees the season shaping up, and his main ideas were not too far off from Sievert’s.
“We had a little bit of a mixed bag in terms of summer training with health. I think Josh Allwardt and Taylor Mueller have looked really good in practice so far,” Einspahr said. “I’m extremely pleased with both of them. I think they have a good chance to step in and replace the guys we lost and make up for that. It kind of depends on whether or not we can fill in well at our 4 and 5 spots and get some guys healthy. I think Chris Shelton and Jordan Potrzeba and some folks like that are going to have to have good seasons and finish out the season well.”
Never a conference to disappoint, the GPAC will once again provide plenty of competition for the Bulldogs. Einspahr noted Morningside, Doane and Northwestern as contenders to keep an eye on. However, with what he has seen so far, he’s feeling good about the team’s chances.
“Anytime you have a guy like Ben Sievert who can run in the top 15 at the national meet you have a chance to be a top 20 team if you can put some guys in there who are reasonably solid,” Einspahr said. “It looks to me like right now we can. I think the biggest question is how we’re going to stack up in the conference. In my mind, there’s no clear favorite right now. I think it will be a real battle in the conference. The top four or five teams on the men’s side are pretty comparable.”
Though the men’s and women’s teams have been hard at work long through the summer, things get down to business on Saturday (Sept. 13) when Concordia hosts its annual alumni short-course meet. Then on Sept. 20, the Bulldog officially open the 2014 season at the annual Woody Greeno Invite at Pioneer Park in Lincoln, Neb.