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Season preview: 2020 Concordia Cross Country

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 27, 2020 in Cross Country

Men's Cross Country
Head Coach
: Matt Beisel (5th year)
2019 Finish: 5th in GPAC
Key Returners: Antonio Blaine (So.); Owen Dawson (So.); Zach Johnson (So.); Wyatt Lehr (Jr.); Jordan Lorenz (Sr.); Ethan Pankow (Jr.); Zach Potratz (Sr.); Camden Sesna (So.); Christian Watters (Sr.); Nick Zadar (Sr.).
Key Newcomers: Ethan Hensley; Deivy Hermanas; Ethan Ideus; Jakob McMillin; Nick Price; Calvin Rohde; Brennan Taylor; Micah Willweber.
2019 GPAC All-Conference: Wyatt Lehr.

Women's Cross Country
Head Coach
: Matt Beisel (5th year)
2019 Finishes: 1st in GPAC; 12th in NAIA
Key Returners: Alyssa Bierwagen (Sr.); Sydney Clark (Sr.); Lydia Cook (Sr.); Abi DeLoach (Jr.); Alyssa Fye (Sr.); Kylahn Heritage (So.); Amie Martin (So.); Mollie Rathjen (So.); Bailie Vanarsdall (So.).
Key Newcomers: Lauren Ada; Keri Bauer; Grace Reiman; Lainey Werts.
Key Losses: Rebekah Hinrichs; Erin Lindeman; Miranda Rathjen; Hannah Rebmann.
2019 GPAC All-Conference: Matt Beisel (Coach of the Year); Kylahn Heritage; Alyssa Fye; Rebekah Hinrichs; Sydney Clark.

The 2019 cross country season resulted in the program’s first GPAC title on the women’s side since 2005. Meanwhile, the men’s team continues to seek similar glory as it welcomes in a talented new class of freshmen. As Head Coach Matt Beisel will tell you, the cross country and track programs are about much more than securing championships. Their success is the end product of plenty of long hours and relationship building.

In other words, the climb back to the top has been quite rewarding. While the women and men are in different territory based upon last year’s GPAC finishes, there is plenty that motivates all parties moving forward. A dream season would involve both squads landing berths to the national championships.

“If our men’s and women’s track and field teams are national contenders, we have the same resources for cross country,” Beisel said. “I tell my athletes there is no excuse for us to not be able to compete at the same level. We are finally starting to get to that point. It is a lot of fun.”

Beisel has made it a clear priority to develop tight bonds and a devotion to Christ within his cross country teams. Members of the team were once again challenged this preseason to come up with a motto, which serves as something of a rallying cry on those long, grueling training runs. Last season the goal was to “close the gap.” In 2020, the Bulldogs hope to “leave no doubt.” That could mean slightly different things depending upon whether it’s the men’s or women’s team being referred to, but they would both like to leave no doubt that Concordia cross country is a force to be reckoned with on the conference and national levels.

The women burst onto the scene last fall in moving from fifth in the GPAC in 2018 to first in 2019. By just about any measure, this was the best season for the program since 2005. As a freshman, Kylahn Heritage became an immediate star and nearly earned All-America honors. She was joined with all-conference honors by returning teammates in Sydney Clark and Alyssa Fye (now alum Rebekah Hinrichs also earned All-GPAC recognition).

“It gives them confidence,” said Beisel of the breakthrough. “I also made it clear to them that they cannot take it for granted. There are really good teams and coaches in this conference. Us doing that is going to redouble the efforts of others to make sure it does not happen again. As a high school coach I had state title teams where the kids got complacent, came back and didn’t work the way they needed to. It is something special but it cannot be taken for granted ever. To win a conference title it is a big deal. They have confidence but I also think they know it is not a sure thing.”

Returners who ran at the national championships last season include Heritage (33rd), Fye (93rd), Amie Martin (132nd), Abi DeLoach (140th), Clark (226th) and Lydia Cook (236th). Their work paved the way for a 12th-place team national finish. There are several others with extensive college experience back in the fold (see key returners list) coupled with a number of impactful newcomers such as freshman Grace Reiman of Hastings, Neb. Keri Bauer is new to cross country. She’s competed in both basketball and track at Concordia.

There are no preseason ratings for the GPAC or NAIA this year, but the Bulldog women would likely be a conference favorite based on last season’s results. There are new dynamics every year and additions/subtractions to the roster. Fye likes how things are shaping up so far. Says Fye, “It is going really well. Of course things change as you lose certain personalities and gain more. Everybody steps up and fills holes and it has gone well. We are all really close … The atmosphere (at nationals) was amazing and I want the other girls to be able to experience that.”

Is this the year the men’s team also makes a big jump in the GPAC? Beisel believes there is a strong chance of that happening. The Concordia men last hoisted the GPAC championship trophy in 2012. This could very well be the program’s best and deepest bunch of distance runners since then. Junior Wyatt Lehr was the only Bulldog to finish in all-conference territory (top 15) in 2019, but many of his teammates are threats to join him in 2020.

“I sat down and tried to think of our potential top ten and there were 18-20 guys I had in my mind,” Beisel said. “It is a really deep group. One of the cool things was we sat down and talked about goals and themes. This year the theme is: leave no doubt. The men want to leave no doubt that they are a top team in the conference. It is going to be a fun challenge and I love the theme and attitude that they have taken ownership for.”

The men’s team did not graduate a single runner from 2019. Its top five at last year’s GPAC championship meet included Lehr (15th), Jordan Lorenz (19th), Camden Sesna (27th), Owen Dawson (35th) and Antonio Blaine (39th). Considering the current depth, bolstered by the freshman class, the top five at the 2020 GPAC championships may look different. Beisel expects the rookies to be a factor. That group features Reed City, Mich., native Calvin Rohde and a host of others (10 freshmen men to be exact).

No doubt that Lorenz, a senior from Gretna, Neb., is one of the team leaders. He has been balancing student teaching with athletic demands to begin this semester. Lorenz will be motivated to jump into the top 15 of the GPAC and to maintain pace with a budding group of teammates.

“There are a lot of freshmen and underclassmen who have come in this year that are looking great,” Lorenz said. “With me being a senior, it is just cool to see that even after our class leaves there is going to be a lot of people step up to the plate. I am excited for this season to see where we can go. We have a lot of potential to go far.”

The Bulldogs have an idea of what they have, but the start of competition will be a true indicator of where they stand. Added Beisel, “Every indication shows that we are no longer a fifth-place conference (men’s) team. How it shakes out (we don’t know yet). There are really good coaches and teams we compete against who also are good recruiters. I do not know what they are bringing in but we are bringing in the strongest distance class since I have been here.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the regular-season schedule endured only minor changes. The campaign will officially open on Saturday, Sept. 5 at the Golden Prairie Opener hosted by Dordt in Sioux Center, Iowa. The conference championships are slated for Nov. 7. Should Concordia teams or individuals qualify, they would compete at the NAIA Cross Country National Championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on April 9, 2021. It will make for a unique challenge with that date landing during outdoor track season.

Said Beisel, “We will work it out and my hope is that both men’s and women’s teams qualify and that I have the problem of figuring it out.”