NOTE: A larger version of this story will appear in the winter edition of Concordia University’s Broadcaster magazine.
November 9, 2019, is the day Concordia cross country truly returned to prominence. Forget about the trophy and the banner for a moment. Feel-good stories had to emerge, the right mix of athletes had to be brought together and meshed into a family and certain mental barriers had to be broken down. It’s what made that day so special. Tears of joy, happiness and relief poured out on that date.
It’s these types of moments that transcend the world of sports. Seniors like Rebekah Hinrichs had wanted this moment her whole career. It wasn’t for lack of effort that the Bulldog women’s cross country team failed to finish better than fourth in the GPAC since 2012. Whatever frustrations were previously felt, they were carried away by light winds on an unseasonably warm November day.
Says Hinrichs, “It was a surreal moment for sure. I had a lot of emotions going. I cried for sure. I cried in relief of being part of this amazing team that has been working all season. We just came together to thank God for all He has given us.”
The emotions of Hinrichs mirrored those of head coach Matt Beisel and her teammates.
Said junior Alyssa Fye, “I don’t know if I quite believe it yet that we won conference and we’re going to Vancouver, Washington, to compete at nationals.”
Said freshman Kylahn Heritage, “It was pretty crazy, really surreal. I still haven’t fully processed it because it’s such a big deal.”
Said junior Sydney Clark, “I was able to look at my teammates and know they put everything they had into it – so did I. That’s how we got there. That was super cool.”
Added Beisel, “I got pretty choked up myself. I couldn’t speak. I really didn’t have the words to express how I felt – I still don’t.”
What Beisel’s squad did was achieve something that the program had not done since 2005 – win a conference championship. The Concordia women’s team had effectively “closed the gap” as the motto for both the men and women’s squad has been all season. For the first time since 2011, the Bulldogs will take a women’s team to the NAIA Cross Country National Championships.
This is more like it for a program that has experienced astounding success, particularly from 1999 through 2005 when it won four conference titles and placed second nationally three times under previous head coach Kregg Einspahr. The question is: how did they get back here?
Ranked third in the GPAC preseason poll, Concordia was not necessarily expected to beat out perennially strong teams in the conference such as Dordt and Northwestern (both nationally ranked to begin the fall). The Bulldogs brought back a great deal of their 2018 team, but said goodbye to top runner Taylor Grove, the program’s lone national qualifier a year ago.
Concordia reached this point by building a familial atmosphere – and with some talent and dedication of course. Explains Fye, “Our team chemistry has been really good this season. That’s helped a lot. I’m just amazed by how much our team pushes each other. When someone has a bad day or bad workout, it’s fine. Get the next one. You just push each other.”
That sense of unity and “running for the one” has been a powerful motivator. Guided by Beisel, the Bulldogs are doing things they may not have thought capable of achieving.
Clark did not even run at the GPAC meet last year and has never scored in a GPAC track meet. She placed 12th at the GPAC Championships.
Sophomore Abi DeLoach did not make the varsity team her senior year of high school. She placed 18th at the GPAC Championships.
Fye played volleyball in high school and never ran cross country. She placed fourth at the GPAC Championships.
Hinrichs did not run cross country until her senior year of high school. She placed fifth at the GPAC Championships.
Freshman Bailie Vanarsdall was plagued by shin injuries in high school and struggled to reach her full potential. She placed 26th at the GPAC Championships.
We could go on … As Beisel explains, “I’ve always coached my teams with a belief in the idea of synergy. It’s the idea that the sum of the parts add up to more than the whole. In theory, 2+2 could equal 5 or 6 … It is so important to love and care about each other. We didn’t just let that happen accidentally.”
On Friday, Nov. 22, Beisel will lead his team into competition at the 2019 NAIA Cross Country National Championships at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. More important than the trophy or the banner, this has been about seeking a goal and accomplishing it through togetherness and determination.
They set out to win a conference title and make it to nationals – and they did it. It doesn’t always work out that way in sports or in life. This team isn’t taking that for granted.
Says Clark, “Honestly it means everything to me. Freshman year I made it a goal before I graduated that I wanted to run at nationals. This is making my whole collegiate dream come true.”