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Season preview: 2017 Concordia cross country

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 31, 2017 in Cross Country

Head Coach: Matt Beisel (2nd year)
2016 Finish: 6th in GPAC
Key Returners: Evan Asche (Jr.); Kohlton Gabehart (Sr.); Cameron Moes (Jr.); Pat Wortmann (Sr.); Thomas Taylor (Jr.).
Key Loss: Chris Shelton. 

Head Coach: Matt Beisel (2nd year)
2016 Finish: 6th in GPAC
Key Returners: Emily (Sievert) Deschaine (Sr.); Taylor Grove (Jr.); Rebekah Hinrichs (So.); Jacy Johnston (Jr.); Erin Lindeman (So.); Abby Protzman (Jr.); Miranda Rathjen (So.).
Key Loss: Marti Vlasin.
2016 GPAC All-Conference/NAIA National Qualifier: Emily (Sievert) Deschaine. 

New philosophies and styles have been established for a cross country program looking to return to its past glory. The Bulldogs progressed through a transitional phase last fall as alum Matt Beisel assumed the head coaching role that had been held down by the highly accomplished Kregg Einspahr. Concordia recorded GPAC team finishes of sixth for both men and women in 2016. 

There is reason to believe the Bulldogs are headed back up the conference ladder. Beisel returns some key figures like national qualifier Emily Deschaine (formerly Emily Sievert) and Pat Wortmann. In addition, Concordia welcomes 22 freshmen. The rookies make up more than half the roster for a program with higher expectations in 2017.

“All of my distance kids ended up running PR’s throughout the year,” Beisel said. “There was a lot of improvement. I think the year was awesome because of that. We come into this year with me knowing these kids and me knowing what summer workouts were appropriate based on their history. They’ve come into this season in the best shape they’ve ever been in. With the new kids, it’s the beginning of that building process of them getting to know me and vice versa.”

Deschaine emerged as Concordia’s lone national qualifier in 2016. She battled through significant pain in her knee to place ninth in the GPAC, locking up the second all-conference cross country award of her career. The native of Frankenmuth, Mich., has fully recovered from the injury that limited her during the track seasons. This offseason she was named a team captain and appears primed for a stellar senior year.

Says Biesel, “As an athlete, she provides a great role model for the young girls to be able to say, ‘I want to do what she did some day.’ She’s been able to make it to nationals multiple times and be all-conference multiple times in cross country and track. She’s an extraordinary young lady and we’re blessed to have her.”

Team success for the women will depend on the development behind Deschaine. Junior Taylor Grove placed 31st in the GPAC last season and went on to qualify for the outdoor track and field national championships in the marathon. Beisel also noted the improvement of junior Jacy Johnston who spent four weeks in China over the summer but still managed to put in the necessary mileage. Based on preseason training, sophomore Miranda Rathjen of Osceola, Neb., may be on the verge of a breakout season. Other returning runners to watch include sophomores Rebekah Hinrichs and Erin Lindeman and junior Abby Protzman.

Then there are the freshmen. Many of them excelled on a statewide scale at their respective high schools. Some, like Mullen High School product Emily Boyer, are lesser experienced in cross country, while others, like Sydney Clark of Des Moines Christian School, qualified for state all four years. Several additional newcomers carry impressive credentials.

“Everyone fits in so well,” Deschaine said. “It’s just neat to see a common mentality and common goals. It’s a lot of men and women who are here because they love running, they want to continue in competition and they work hard. We’re seeing girls already stepping up and doing a great job. I think they’re going to be a fantastic addition to helping our team do well this year. It also sets the groundwork for years to come and a continually successful team.”

On the men’s side, Concordia returns its four highest placing competitors from the 2016 GPAC championships. That group is made up of Wortmann (28th), junior Thomas Taylor (29th), senior Kohlton Gabehart (36th) and junior Evan Asche (42nd). Not far off, junior Cameron Moes (50th) is also back in the stable.

A team berth in the national championships may seem to be a stretch based upon last season’s conference finish, but the Bulldogs believe they’re making steady progress towards that aim. They’ll need to in order to catch up with league rivals like Northwestern, which had six of the top 11 place finishers at the conference championships.

“Every day we’ve been talking about making it to nationals,” Wortmann said. “All of us are hungry to go to nationals. I’ve never been to nationals for cross. All of us have that goal. We’re all working towards it. Every day at practice you can really see it in everyone that they’re working towards that goal.”

That goal probably won’t be reached without some help with the large class of newcomers. Similar to the women’s side, many of the new Bulldogs bring winning pedigrees. Rookie Christian Van Cleave (Arvada, Colo.), along with other freshmen, has caught Beisel’s attention this preseason.

“Those guys ran at a very high level last year and are going to bring immediate relevancy to our team,” Beisel said. “Then we have another tier of guys who ran well and have state experience. They could very well develop. With more work in the weight room and all that, they could develop. I’m excited to see what all of these kids can do.”

Beisel added a new wrinkle this season by bringing his teams to campus prior to the start of the school year. The Bulldogs reported on Aug. 10, giving them ample time to train and bond before they officially open up the season on Sept. 9 (Dordt College Invitational). The team has not had to hurry through its preseason due to the early arrival. The extra time has given the team opportunity to receive more instruction from Beisel and from strength and conditioning coach Todd Berner.

“We’re working as a team and seeing where we fall,” Deschaine said. “This is going to be a good group to train with and a good group to be with. We were also able to improve the team cohesiveness with not having the focus of school and being able to focus on running. I think it helps us head into the season with a good mindset.”

Part of that mindset means being dissatisfied with sixth-place conference finishes. Both programs used to regularly place within the top two spots at the conference championships. The men’s program last claimed a GPAC title in 2012 while the women’s most recent conference title came in 2005.

Says Beisel, “The big goal everybody is fired up about is moving back to where we’ve been, which is top three of the conference or higher. Winning conference is always the goal. Getting out there and competing with the best teams in the GPAC is our No. 1 priority. If that happens, nationals is automatic.”