Saturday, October 24, 2015

NSIC Champs a Launch Pad for the Top Teams

The rain clouds quit shedding their moisture.  Several raptors rode the winds up above and watched the drama unfold below.  On the soggy but firm green ground of the the University of Minnesota's Les Bolstad Golf Course the NSIC women's and men's championship races crowned their champions

Not wanting a repeat of last year's tie breaker battle with Augustana, fourth ranked NCAA DII women's team and 2014 NSIC runner-up, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, had a race plan hoping to avoid last year's result where Augustana won on a tie breaker.

UMD coach Joanna Warmington told her team to go out fast, a bit faster than they might otherwise be comfortable.  The rationale being that this race was not going to be won in the final kilometers, but rather in getting in a good position early and maintaining that lead to the finish.  Warmington knew that the top three Bulldog runners--Breanna Colbenson, Emi Trost, and Hannah Olson--were likely to outrun any of the other team's top trios.

Warmington said that she is always nervous going into a race.  Her main cause for concern this time being that she didn't know what the other team's were capable of.  Some of them had not run at "full strength" yet, so her plan for the team was to work with what they could control.  Try to get the most out of each team member. "I know that Breanna likes to go out hard," said Olson.  So to keep up, Hannah had to keep in contact with Trost and Colbenson.

The challenge for UMD all season  was who would be team finishers four and five and how close could they finish to the top three?  "The sisters(Erica and Amber Seidenkranz) ran a great race," said Olson.  "Our coach told us to try and stay close," said Erica Seindenkranz.  "And it was great that the person who was running with me was my sister." The Bulldog trio up front finished 5-6-7 to give the team a six point lead over their closest rival, which was not defending champions Augustana.

In the middle of the race Erica Seidenkranz looked in front of her and was surprised to find that "there were a lot of U-Mary runners up ahead."  One of those runners being U-Mary's Lexi Zeis, a sophomore who won this year's DII women's race at the Roy Griak Invitational.  Zeis's strategy was to duplicate her Griak run, which meant she led from beginning to end.

Lexi Zeis leads the pack early in the race. Photo by Jason Oakman
"I've been running this course since I was a freshman in high school," said Zeiss, who is a graduate of Bismark HS.  The hills, the competition didn't intimidate or worry her.  She ran like a veteran, grinding down anyone who attempted to stay with her.

Defending NSIC champion Sasha Hovind of Northern State and Augustana sophomore Leigh Sievert tried to stay with Zeis, but as the race progressed the gap between them and Zeis only widened.  The UMD "Big Three" didn't allow any other U-Mary runners in front of them, and the Seidenkranz sisters didn't panick, but rather upped her resolve to push harder when they saw the U-Mary runners in front of them. By the finish the sisters outscored the U-Mary's fourth and fifth runners by ten points.

U-Mary had followed a different directive from their coach,  Dennis Newell.  Newell broke up the race into three 2K segments.  The first 2K he told the team to run with their heads.  Run smart.  The second 2K with their legs, and the final 2K with their hearts.  The team has been improving each week, added Newell, and they'll have to step it up again for the  NCAA DII Regional competition on November 7.

There the goal will be a top three finish for Zeis in the individual race as well as for the team, Zeis said.

The Men
The Augustana men's team approached the NSIC Conference championships as an attempt to extend their streak of team championships to seven and to send a message to the rest of the DII teams in the country.  They didn't merely want to win, said individual champion Glen Ellingson, they wanted to dominate. They wanted to dictate the pace of the race with their top three runners: Ellingson, Keegan Carda, and Harald Karbo, said coach Tracy Hellman.

Glen Ellingson.  Photo by Christopher Mitchell
Ellenson approached the NSIC Championships with a modest goal.  He didn't think he would win, but he did believe he could finish in the top three.  The others he expected to be with him were his Norwegian teammate Harald Karbo, who was running his first race of the season, and Keegan Carda, who had been the team's top finisher in the early season meets.

All three were up front early, but by 5K it was Carda and Ellengson with a Sioux Falls University "shadow, " Jase Kraft, tucked in behind them.  Ellenson sensed that their pace had created a gap and he turned his head to see that Kraft had dropped behind.  "We dropped him," he told Carda and the pair were on their own.  At about 6K they went down a hill and Carda could no longer keep the pace, leaving Ellenson alone for a last 2K victory march.

Down the home stretch Karbo almost made it a 1,2,3 sweep of the top places, but he couldn't get past U-Mary's Chris Jessup.  Nearly a minute later Augustana's Nick Larsen and Logan Burns closed the deal on the team championship.  Once again, U-Mary was nearly able to threaten for the title as their top four runners were in the top 14, but their fifth finisher finished 63rd.

The other "what ifs" favored Augustana as two of their top runners did not run  the NSIC Championships.  One of whom will return for the season ending meets.

"We're a November team," said Ellingson.  At the  NCAA DII Regionals on November 7 in Joplin, MO the team hopes to reinforce their pedigree as a contender for the NCAA DII men's team championship.  "Our goal is not just to win," said Ellenson, "but to make a statement."  The NCAA DII men's team championship is wide open, he said.  At least six teams have a legitimate shot at the title, and Augustana is one of them.

As the awards ceremonies finished another runner was looking toward the future. Winona State sophomore Reed Parent, who had finished 21st(top 20 get recognized on the podium), sloshed through the slippery mud in front of the awards stand and posed arms outstretched in front of the podium.  "I'm going for the so close award," he said with a smile.  Watch out top 20, here comes Reed.

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