Cross Country News Header

Q&A: Einspahr discusses Concordia cross country past and present

By on Sep. 4, 2014 in Cross Country

Q&A: Einspahr discusses Concordia cross country past and present

By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications

Dr. Kregg Einspahr, an NAIA and Concordia Athletics Hall of Famer, sat down on Wednesday to discuss everything from top Concordia cross country runners and moments to the outlook of his 2014 Bulldog squads. Since becoming Bulldog head men’s and women’s cross country coach in 1992, Einspahr has guided his teams to a combined 32 national top-25 finishes, nine conference titles and five national runner-up claims. In addition, 10 different individuals have won a combined 16 GPAC or NIAC titles of their own – most recently Sarah Kortze and Colin Morrissey in 2012.

Following hip replacement surgeries over the summer, Einspahr feels great heading into his 23rd season at the helm of the program. The following Q&A with Einspahr took place on Wednesday (Sept. 3).

JK: Tell me about what cross country at Concordia was like in 1992 when you first became head coach and how it has evolved in the 22 years since then.

Kregg Einspahr: We started with two pretty small teams. We had maybe six or seven guys on the team and seven or eight women. Typically, these days our team has been closer to a combined total of between 35 and 45 student-athletes, so it’s considerably bigger. Instead of taking one or two vans (to meets), we oftentimes take a charter on longer cross country trips.

I think over the years we’ve established a pretty good tradition of running and cross country. I think we’re recognized on campus, in the GPAC and at the NAIA national level as being consistently one of the best programs in the NAIA. Up until a year or two ago – I haven’t checked the statistics out lately – our women were actually the winningest active program in the NAIA defined by how teams have done historically at the national championships. And our men were a top 10 or top five program.

Those kinds of things take time. It’s nice to feel like we’re recognized as one of the best programs in the NAIA on an annual basis. When teams beat us they feel like they’ve accomplished something. Obviously we’d like to keep that going and keep our tradition going.

JK: You have won nine conference titles combined and have had five national runner-up finishes in cross country. What are some of the best memories that come to mind through all that success?

KE: The first team that I took to the national championships as a team, we didn’t have enough girls to finish a whole team at the home meet that year. We had a girl who played other sports at Concordia and then took up cross country either her fourth or fifth year. She had some eligibility left and was finishing up some school work. She ended up really enjoying it and being our No. 1 runner. That was really satisfying because of the way that team was put together. It was kind of by brute force that we got that team together and got them in the national championships. That was a pretty satisfying coaching moment.

Over the years we’ve had a lot of success with individual champions at the conference level. You go through Amy Luft (1997), Stacey Hain (1998), Molly Engel (2002, 2003, 2004) and Sarah Kortze (2012). On the men’s side you’ve got Brandon Seifert (1997, 1998, 1999), Andrew Walquist (2003, 2004), Luka Thor (2006), Zach Meineke (2008, 2009), Dana Schmidt (2010) and Colin Morrissey (2012). We’ve just had a great run of incredible runners here. A number of them should end up in the NAIA Hall of Fame.

Brandon Seifert was one of the very toughest competitors we’ve ever had. He sticks out in my mind among all of those as the premier competitor that I’ve coached here. There are a lot of great memories. It’s been fun.

I think one of the really neat points for us was winning the conference championship in 2004 and having a perfect score, which is the only time it’s ever been done in the conference. To score a perfect 15, going 1-2-3-4-5 was pretty neat. I know even Ken Hambleton over at the Lincoln Journal Star said that of all the athletic events he’s witnessed, he ranks that up there among the most impressive. It was a pretty dominant team.

In some ways it’s hard not to take the team you have and the success it’s having for granted. When you don’t have that kind of team you sure miss those. To have the kind of teams we’ve had and be able to be national runner up – five of them in cross country – that’s pretty remarkable.

We’d like to look forward and maybe we’ll get another (finish like that) down the road. You kind of take them for granted when you have those teams. When you don’t, you sure do miss them.

JK: What is the key to that kind of sustained success where you’re consistently a top 25 national team?

KE: There’s a lot of development in runners over the course of three or four years and I think we’ve had good success developing runners. Zach Meineke, for instance, never ran cross country in high school. Jeremy Koch, who was an All-American here, did not run high school cross country. We’ve had good success with developing athletes. You also have to have some recruiting success and you have to work at that and try to identify the kinds of kids you do have a chance to get to Concordia. Then you have to make a big effort to get them here once you identify those individuals who are also good fits at Concordia and are good students that are looking for the kind of Christian environment we support here.

I think that’s probably the biggest key – we’ve identified good fits that are talented. They’ve stayed for four years and have graduated and have gone on and been good representatives for us after college too. You look at what Andrew Walquist is doing and Zach Meineke, Dana Schmidt and Brandon Seifert and Rachael Geidel and Molly Engel and Jennifer Nikkila and all those runners we’ve had over the years. It’s clear that they were outstanding individuals apart from simply being runners. They are great representatives of Concordia.

I may pass or lose out on kids because I don’t think they’re necessarily good fits for Concordia. I think we’ve been very fortunate being able to attract the kind of talent we have here. That’s a big factor and sometimes you just have to get lucky. Sometimes you have to sit down and pray when you’re in a recruiting drought. Sometimes I know I’ve sat down and thought long and hard about what we’re either doing right or what we’re doing wrong. It seems like sometimes it comes down to – whether you call it fate or the will of God – however it turns out, sometimes it’s just plain luck. Sometimes it’s just sitting down and asking God to answer your prayers.

We’ve been fortunate in that regard. I think there is some luck to recruiting. We had a great group of runners when Zach Meineke was here, then all of a sudden Dana Schmidt appeared on our doorstep as a transfer from Mankato State for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with me. We kind of hit it off when he came to look at transferring to Concordia. That one came kind of out of the blue and he was a key to that great team we had in 2009. We had an unbelievable national championship but we simply got beat by a team that was absolutely unbelievable in Malone. Other years I think we might have won the national championship. We had a great, great team up and down the line with Zach Meineke, Dana Schmidt, Luka Thor and David Goeglein and that whole group. Wow was that a powerful team.

In cross country you can’t call timeout. You can’t make a play. There’s not a lot else you can do about what somebody else is bringing to the table and trying to counter what they have. Malone was just an unbelievable team. I think they finished five guys in the top 25 which is really remarkable. We were very, very good but there’s not a lot you can do about what other people bring to the table.

JK: Shifting to this year’s teams, how has Ben Sievert continued to improve since being an All-American last year?

KE: Last season gave him a lot of confidence. 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. There were a lot of teams outside of our region that came in for that meet to preview the course, from the upper Midwest to further east. So he got a lot of confidence from that meet. That helped him do well at the national championships. He got himself in a really good position early on and that was a real key for him. I think that’s going to give him a lot of confidence going into this year.

He’s a real steady runner. 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.

JK: You graduated Hayden Hohnholt and Beau Billings, but you have several guys back who ran at the national championships last year. What have you seen from them in preseason and what are you expecting throughout this season?

KE: 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. 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.

Cross country and track are always interesting animals. We don’t have won-loss records for the season. You can be dead last in every meet going into the conference championship and still come out the conference champion, and the national champion for that matter. The way you train is really geared towards those big championship meets at the end of the season. There are some meets that will be important for us in October – the NAIA preseason meet and the Mount Marty meet. Obviously the conference championship is where everything boils down and things get sorted out. That will be our focus.

JK: On the women’s side, talk about Kim Wood’s development now that she’s had a couple years of cross country experience under her belt.

KE: She’s had to try to develop into a distance runner and learn how to run a longer race. 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. I’m certainly hoping that she does because that’s what we need. We need a frontrunner. She’s really committed to doing that. She’s a hard worker and I think ready to have a great season. She’s putting things together. Typically it takes a couple years to learn how to run cross country.

JK: Who fits into the equation after Kim Wood? You have several back from last year.

KE: Megan Burma looks like she had a good summer and has improved a lot. 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. I’m not quite sure how everybody’s going to stack up when we get into race mode.

Those are some of the gals that are training well. 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 think she has reasonably good foot speed and if she can learn how to run cross country, I think she’s going to help us out.

JK: The preseason polls came out last week. Maybe it feels a little early to figure out where you’re at on the national level. How do you see things shaking out?

KE: Anytime you have a guy like Ben Sievert who can run top 15 at the national meet you have a chance to be a top 20 team if you can put some guys in there were are reasonably solid. 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 Morningside will have a good, solid team. I think Doane will be improved. Northwestern may be kind of the surprise team this year. They have a good group coming back. They have at least one excellent freshman coming in who is a very good competitor. 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.

On the women’s side, Dordt would probably be the consensus No. 1 team. Doane is going to have a very good team. I think we’re going to surprise some people this year. 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.