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Recounting the 2004 cross country squad's stunning dominance

By Jacob Knabel on Jul. 13, 2018 in Cross Country

It could be argued that the 2004 women’s cross country team is the most dominant in the history of Concordia athletics. During that incredible era of Bulldog distance running, few programs in the region, at any level of collegiate competition, could compare. During one particular race that season, head coach Kregg Einspahr even held back several top runners. The Concordia women still won the meet.

That ’04 team led by then senior Molly Christensen (maiden name Engel) deserves to be forever cherished. Not only did they set the standard for Bulldog cross country teams, they also set a new one for an entire conference. They raised the bar so high that future GPAC teams can really only hope to be their equal – but even that is unlikely. This group was an obvious selection for the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame, which it will officially join on Sept. 21 as part of homecoming weekend.

Says Einspahr, “At our cross country (end-of-season) dinner that year, I had tears in my eyes. I told them I knew they were a special bunch. Sometimes when you spend four years with people, it’s hard not to take them for granted. I told them at that time that I may never have a group like that ever again. I told them that then and that’s certainly true now.”

What Christensen and company accomplished at the 2004 GPAC championships is the stuff of legend. It was a stunning performance, not necessarily because Concordia won the title – that was essentially a forgone conclusion entering the meet. What astounded onlookers such as the Lincoln Journal Star’s Ken Hambleton and the team itself was the final standings. Bulldogs selfishly took up the first through sixth-place spots in the race.

First came Christensen, who won her third career individual GPAC title. Next in line were teammates Jennifer (Nikkila) Pressgrove, Kelly (Waterman) Phelps, Jacquelyn (Dibbern) Moser, Michelle Quinlan and Micah (Dubbs) Kern. Concordia nearly duplicated that feat at the NAIA Region IV championships by placing five of the top six individuals in another winning effort. Those back-to-back dominant performances vaulted the Bulldogs into the No. 1 NAIA national ranking.

“We were just ecstatic,” says Christensen in recalling the GPAC championship meet. “We went in confident and knew we had a strong team. At the same time, we wanted to be humble and not be arrogant going into those races. Since we had such a strong group of juniors and seniors that year we had that strength and confidence behind us. That experience is huge going into those final meets.”

Einspahr had essentially assembled a cross country dream team with talents that extended into the track seasons. Christensen still owns the school’s outdoor record in the 1,500 meters and was part of the record holding outdoor 4x800 meter relay squad that included Dubbs and Nikkila. Additionally, Waterman remains on top of the school’s all-time list in the steeplechase. Finally, Quinlan remains the standard bearer in the half marathon. Christensen, Nikkila, Quinlan and Waterman were all seniors on this Bulldog dream team.

Christensen says she had no idea what she was stepping into or the success that would follow. Originally from Columbus, Neb., Christensen remembers how impressed she was when first meeting Einspahr, who reached incredible heights during his own athletic career. She visited numerous colleges before realizing that Concordia felt most like home to her. Einspahr enjoyed putting these pieces together while cooking up a recipe that would take the entire conference by storm.

“I remember a lot of the home visits I had with them and what I ate when I went to visit them,” Einspahr said. “At Molly’s those were some of the best pork chops I’ve ever had in my life. I knew that when I was recruiting that bunch it was quite the group. They just kept committing. I knew that all those girls were awful good.”

They also grew to be awfully close. Naturally, they spent many hours with each other, running on nearby Nebraska roads and trails. They really didn’t seem to mind if it snowed either. During one pre-Christmas jaunt, Phelps and Pressgrove lost their way after snow began falling in the midst of their planned 10-miler. Einspahr had gone out to look for them, but couldn’t find them. He was worried sick. Eventually they made their way back to campus. Such concern shown by Einspahr trickled down throughout the team.

A 2004 Omaha World-Herald story quoted Christensen as saying, “It’s phenomenal how close we are.” At the same time, they all wanted to beat each other on race day. The drive to be great fueled their championship push.

“We had such a strong group of senior girls, all around, including academically and spiritually” Christensen. “We did devotions together before meets. If one of us had an issue, a family member died or something happened, we just were all there for each other. It was such a strong group of women. We were like a family. On the flip side, when we worked out, we were all super competitive. We really pushed ourselves in practice to make ourselves better. It really helped improve us as a team.”

Impressively, the 2004-05 class of seniors finished as the national runner up three times and won two GPAC championships. The 2004 season culminated on Nov. 20 with the national championships in Louisville, Ky., on a rain-soaked, muddy course. A lot was expected of the Bulldogs, who carried that sparkling No. 1 ranking into the meet. Admitted Einspahr, “I don’t think it helped us to have been ranked No. 1. I think it put some pressure on us we could have done without, but we had a legitimate shot to win the national championship. It was impressive for us to get up and give Simon Fraser (national champion) a pretty good race.”

For any championship team, there’s a whole lot more to it than just the trophies and the medals associated with the triumphs of the time. Einspahr always enjoyed those moments before and after races when he could pump up, build up and provide encouragement to his runners. Christensen fondly remembers how Einspahr would write out scientific formulas related to immunology. Christensen, who lives in Orlando with her family, now finds herself on the brink of a nursing career, partly inspired by Einspahr.

Now each of the team members look forward to September’s reunion. Christensen says she and the teammates who are able to make it back hope to plan a run together. It’ll be just like old times, running alongside each other with no opposition in sight.

“It’s an honor to receive an award like this,” Christensen said of the Hall of Fame selection. “It brings back a lot of great memories. It’s like, Oh my gosh, this was like 15 years ago, but it seems like it was not that long ago. I haven’t seen a lot of my teammates for so long. We’re kind of dispersed throughout the country. It will be nice to meet back up with them on campus.”