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Heritage, tight cross country team upbeat through time apart

By Jacob Knabel on Jun. 30, 2020 in Cross Country

Kylahn Heritage just completed her freshman year, but her actions might fool you into thinking she’s a college veteran. Heritage is a big part of both the present and future when it comes to Concordia distance running. That’s a very positive thing for head coach Matt Beisel’s program, which is fresh off its first women’s cross country title since 2005.

Ever since normality went out the window back in the middle of March, Heritage has taken it upon herself to step into a leadership role. She can’t wait to get back on campus to serve as a Launch leader in early August.

“I am so fired up. I am so ready to see my teammates again,” says the native of Nampa, Idaho. “We made it to nationals last year and coach has been having a lot of talks with us over email, Zoom and on the phone. We can’t be too overconfident and assume that we’ll make it to nationals just because we did last year. I believe we can make it to nationals as a team again, and I believe that we can score even higher if we put our minds to it and are there for each other. It’s not about individual runners. It’s about one team.”

Like another supremely talented young runner in the track program, Rachel Battershell of Wheatland, Wyo., Heritage connected closely with the people and the culture that Concordia had to offer. Originally she expected to remain closer to home. She certainly had the opportunity to go elsewhere. While at Melba High School, Heritage was an 800-meter state champion and led her track team to back-to-back state titles. Not surprisingly, she was a captain for both her cross country and track teams.

Beisel had found her recruiting profile via the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) website and made the initial contact. Those conversations eventually led to a campus visit that would seal the deal in Heritage’s mind. The visit to Concordia felt different than the other ones Heritage made during her recruitment.

“There was just a sense of belonging there,” Heritage said. “Everyone wanted me to be there and they treated me like family before they even knew me. Now I understand how they feel because every time I see new girls I want them to know how great Concordia is – just the welcoming atmosphere and the family dynamic.”

Heritage truly believes that her success, at least in part, is a product of the team togetherness that has burgeoned in recent years. Already the team’s No. 1 cross country runner as a freshman, Heritage placed second in the GPAC and 33rd at nationals (barely missing a top-30 finish required for All-America honors). She also won the GPAC indoor title in the 3,000 meters.

Women’s cross country and track and field is on a roll at Concordia. The Bulldogs swept 2019 indoor/outdoor GPAC titles before more championships came this past academic year in cross country and indoor track. Heritage has experienced plenty of winning in high school and so far in college, but the special nature of the program has more to do with other aspects. Heritage says that the team at Concordia is the most united squad she’s ever been part of.

“Coming to Concordia I was just surprised at how close everyone was,” Heritage said. “I feel like my improvement didn’t just come from physical hard work but also because the team emotionally lifted me up. No one cares who’s better or worse. No one cares about your times. They all care about you as a person. As a Christian athlete, that means so much to me.”

Heritage is very open when it comes to discussing her faith. She says she didn’t know how much she needed a Christ-centered college environment until she experienced Concordia. The welcoming atmosphere has made it easier for her to be more than 1,000 miles from home.

Now Heritage misses her home away from home. If there was any positive that did come out of the situation that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that Heritage believes she and her teammates will be fresher this fall. The lack of an outdoor season may have prevented burnout for some athletes. The grind of being in-season essentially the entire school year can be a challenge for athletes in their first college seasons.

“At first I was devastated,” Heritage said of the cancellation of the outdoor season. “By the time spring break ended I was missing my teammates and my friends from college so much. I missed the competition we train for and training with a team. Now it’s like six months until we go back again (following spring break). For all these six months I’m running in Idaho while all my other friends are back home … I think by the time (outdoor) track came I was feeling emotionally burnt out just because it was a lot of training.”

A rejuvenated Heritage will gallop into her sophomore season with raised expectations. She and her teammates placed 12th in the NAIA last fall and seem to be a lock to enter the new campaign with a preseason top 25 ranking. Rebekah Hinrichs was the lone senior among the seven Bulldogs who ran at the national meet in Fort Vancouver, Wash.

If there is any leadership void created by the loss of the 2019-20 senior class, Heritage certainly has the high character and the take-charge attitude to fill it. In a prolonged summer of running hilly paths at Mallard Park in Idaho, Heritage allows her mind to wander a couple of months into the future. She’s ready for this because she’s prepared herself for it. Heritage has taken the initiative to stay in contact with her teammates in order to ensure that everyone is happy and healthy – and getting their mileage in.

Says Heritage, “I made it one of my goals for this season not just to do well athletically, but to be an encouraging role model to my teammates. We’ve had some really good role models – and still do. As a freshman I was like, ‘I want to be like those girls.’ I want all the new ones that come in to know that they have someone they can talk to and count on whenever they need anything.”

The cross country season is slated to officially begin on Sept. 5 with the Golden Prairie Opener hosted by Dordt. The national championship meet will shift to Seminole Valley Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this fall.