This feature story first appeared in the winter edition of the Concordia University 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 and place 12th at the NAIA National Championships. The Concordia women’s team had effectively “closed the gap” as the motto for both the men and women’s squads had been all season. For the first time since 2011, the Bulldogs traveled 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.”
With this team in particular, the process of melding as one really began back in August, prior to the start of the school year. The men’s and women’s teams convened at Platte River State Park for an excursion that was about more than just physical training. The freshmen were welcomed in, goals were formed and expectations began to take shape.
In addition to getting their mileage in, members of the team hiked, played games, ate around a campfire and led devotions. During this time the women laid the groundwork for a championship season by becoming closer together.
“We’ve been building on past success and have added more depth each year,” Hinrichs said. “Knowing who was coming in and who we already had, I knew it would be something special.”
Coming out of the gathering at the Platte River, the Bulldogs were energized for a new said. Said Clark, “It was really fun and I just knew right from the beginning that this team was going to be really good. The atmosphere was a lot better than it was last year.”
Beisel was firm in his belief that Concordia should be a top-two team in the conference and in the thick of things for a team berth to the NAIA national championships. Hinrichs and company were on the same page. It was time to close the gap.
It did not take long for tangible results to show that conference championship aspirations were reasonable. At the season opening Augustana Twilight, the Bulldogs beat out rival and 22nd-ranked Northwestern while led by freshman Amie Martin, who would go on to be named GPAC Runner of the Week. If anyone needed further evidence that Concordia was for real, it came on Sept. 28 when the Bulldogs outran conference favorite and defending GPAC champion Dordt at the Dean White Invite.
Confidence was soaring. It had been years since the program had strung together such brilliance in the opening month of the season. Said Fye, “That was an amazing confidence booster because it gave us the thought that we could do it. We were right there. It was amazing. All the confidence in the world was given to us.”
Following the Dean White Invite, only two meets remained before the conference championships in November. One threat to the team’s resolve would come on Oct. 5 at the Briar Cliff Invite. A large pack of runners, including several from Concordia, veered off the course. It yielded frustrating results and even brought anger to some.
It deserves mention as part of the story of the season. Said Clark, “That meet was really frustrating. I was part of that lead pack that went off the course. At first when I turned around in the race I felt like, ‘Oh my race is over.’ Then a few seconds later I realized we still had to score so I sprinted all the way back.”
Clark and her teammates regrouped and won the Mount Marty Invite a few weeks later. Whatever they may have lost at Briar Cliff felt restored. That performance set them up for the conference championships. In other sports, a GPAC title often comes down to a series of contests that accumulate over months of time. In cross country, it comes down to performance on that one date.
On the home course of the preseason favorite Defenders, the Bulldogs accomplished exactly what they had set out to do. Seven Concordia runners placed inside the top 20 in powering the way to a title. It doesn’t always work this way in sports for a team to seek a specific goal and then seize it when the opportunity strikes.
“It was not a cocky arrogance but an understanding that this was for real,” said Beisel when recalling what led up to that day. “We can potentially do this. I would guess that as they got more serious in seeing this they really paid attention to details in their training and lifestyles that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
On Nov. 22, eight Bulldogs made the journey to Vancouver, Wash., site of the 2019 NAIA Cross Country National Championships. It served as one more time for this ‘family’ to come together in competition. In cultivating such a tight-knit atmosphere, Beisel had seen his vision come to fruition. The 12th place finish far exceeded the team’s No. 19 national ranking entering the meet.
An Idaho native, Heritage has found family far from home. Says Heritage of Beisel, “Even outside of practice he’s there for me, so he also feels like family. He takes care of us. Every time I’ve had to come talk to him about being stressed or going through a difficult challenge he always ends the conversation with, ‘I made a commitment to you and I’m going to fulfil it.’”
It all lead to a fulfilling 2019 season and one no one associated with the team will forget. Dreams came true. The gap had been closed.
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.”