West World: Will Simon Fraser Run To Regional Trophies?
Simon Fraser's women won the GNAC Championships by 45 points and has yet to lose to a Division II team this season. Photo by Ron Smith.
Simon Fraser's women won the GNAC Championships by 45 points and has yet to lose to a Division II team this season. Photo by Ron Smith.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

MONMOUTH, Ore. – With the first NCAA West Regional Cross Country Championships in two years on the horizon, there is no question that the GNAC’s teams are prepared to perform well.

After a highly competitive conference championship meet two weeks ago in Lacey, Washington, teams head to a familiar setting as Western Oregon’s Ash Creek Preserve will host its second consecutive regional meet. The site of the 2019 race, this is the fourth time that the regional meet has been held in Monmouth.

After its sweep of both the team and individual titles at the GNAC Championships, Simon Fraser hopes that winning momentum will carry through to a pair of regional titles.

The SFU men won their first conference championship on October 23, finishing with 50 points to edge out 2019 champion Western Washington by five points. Junior Aaron Ahl claimed the individual title, battling through the blustery conditions to edge out Alaska Anchorage freshman Coleman Nash in a time of 24:21.8 over 8,000 meters. Simon Fraser placed three of its five scoring runners in the top 10 with freshman Charlie Dannatt placing third and freshman Scott Arndt placing eighth.

While the championship was the first team victory for the SFU men this season, they have performed well head-to-head against other West Region teams. Two of the team’s second-place finishes have come to CCAA champion Chico State, at September’s San Francisco State Invitational and October’s Bill Roe Classic.

While the men are basking in the glow of that title, the Simon Fraser women may well be the class of the West Region. The team placed all five scoring runners in the top 10 at the GNAC Championships to finish with a score of 32 points, the lowest winning score at the meet since 2017. Simon Fraser has not lost a meet this season, posting a 24-point win over Chico State at San Francisco State and a 61-point win over the Wildcats at the Bill Roe Classic.

Olivia Willett has been hard to keep up with this season. The senior surged in the final kilometer to win the GNAC individual title by six seconds in a time of 21:27.3 over 6,000 meters. Willett was a two-second winner at the San Francisco State Invitation over Concordia Irvine’s Jodi Paradis and placed second at the Rill Roe Classic with an 18-second margin over her next nearest Division II opponent.

Willett was capably backed at the GNAC Championships by four fast teammates. Freshman Kate Cameron placed sixth in 21:54.6, senior Alison Andrews-Paul placed seventh in 22:00.4 and junior Megan Roxby placed eighth in 22:02.4. Junior Emily Chilton rounded out the All-GNAC spots, placing 10th in 22:15.1 as just 48 separated the quintet.

Willett is the top returning finisher from the 2019 West Regional, placing third in a time of 20:51.6 amongst a group of six GNAC runners that finished in the top 10.

While Simon Fraser tops the GNAC form chart, they are far from the only conference athletes to watch. Despite turning over much of its roster from the 2019 conference championship team, the Western Washington men reloaded with a fast stable of athletes. The Vikings finished no worse than second in four meets this season, capped by a close second-place finish to Wayne State (Mich.) at the Roy Griak Invitational in September.

Junior Mac Franks, one of just two returners from that 2019 team, placed sixth at the GNAC Championships in 24:45.3 while freshman Jeret Gillingham was eighth in 24:48.5.

Nash’s second-place finish at the GNAC Championships was his first loss of the season. The GNAC Men’s Freshman of the Year took the individual title in the Seawolves’ first three meets of the season. Junior Jacob Moos has run a solid No. 2 to Nash all season and placed fifth at the GNAC Championships in 24:42.4. This will be the first meet of the season where Alaska Anchorage will face a West Region team outside of its GNAC foes.

Other top men’s individual runners to watch include Northwest Nazarene freshman Dylan Tidwell, who placed fourth in at the GNAC Championships in 24:35.9, Saint Martin’s junior Jack Farrell, who was seventh in 24:26, and Western Oregon junior and GNAC Newcomer of the Year Miguel Villar, who placed 10th in 24:51.7.

Alaska Anchorage senior Felix Kemboi is the top returning finisher from the 2019 regional. Kemboi placed eighth in a time of 30:11.9 over 10,000 meters. This season, Kemboi placed 20th at the GNAC Championships in a time of 25:12.3 after having won the individual title in 2019.

On the women’s side, Western Washington put it all together to score a solid second-place finish at the GNAC Championships. The result was a bit of a surprise as, with a largely new lineup, the Vikings had posted only one top-two team finish all season. The team showed its potential on the big stage with a sixth-place finish at the Roy Griak Invitational.

While no WWU runners broke into the top 10, the Vikings grouped well with only a 21-second gap between the scoring five. Junior Brook Wedin led the group, placing 11th in 22:26.1. Senior Brittany Aquino and freshman Ila Davis were close behind in 13th and 14th place, respectively, with times of 22:30.7 and 22:31.4.

The GNAC has a reputation of providing surprises on the women’s side and this year should be no different with the emergence of a talented group of athletes from Alaska. The Nanooks’ third-place finish at the GNAC Championships was the best in program history and came on the legs of a trio of freshmen. Rosie Fordham, the GNAC Freshman of the Year, was second in 21:33.4, her third second-place finish in five meets this season. Kendall Kramer was third in 21:34.5 and Naomi Bailey was fifth in 21:45.

Northwest Nazarene was the surprise at the 2019 West Regional, parlaying a sixth-place conference meet finish into a second-place regional finish and the program’s first trip to nationals. With a repeat sixth-place finish at the 2021 GNAC Championships, it could happen again.

Other women’s individual runners to watch include Western Oregon junior and GNAC Women’s Newcomer of the Year Luz Garcia, who finished fifth in 21:48.5. Garcia placed 13th at the 2019 West Regional Championships running for Cal Poly Pomona. Seattle Pacific freshman Annika Esvelt was ninth in 22:06.3.

Alaska Anchorage senior Nancy Jeptoo was also among the top 10 finishers in 2019, placing fourth before racing to All-American honors. She finished 29th at the GNAC Championships in a time of 23:09.5.

THE REST OF THE WEST: When evaluating the rest of the GNAC’s men’s competition in the West Regional, the conversation starts with Chico State. Winners of the last four regional titles, the Wildcats ran away with the CCAA championship with a score of 25 points on October 23 in San Marcos, California. Cal Poly Pomona, the second-place team, scored 83 points with Cal State San Marcos a close third with 88 points.

The Wildcats placed six runners in the top 10 and had an impressive 14-second gap between the scoring five runners. Freshman Brayden McLaughlin won the individual title with a time of 24:43. Broncos’ sophomore Vincent Sarino was second in 24:47.2 and Cal State San Marcos senior Shea Vavra was third 24:49.2.

Rounding out the scoring five for Chico State was senior Jack Emanuel (fourth, 24:50.3), sophomore Dylan White (fifth, 24:52.3), senior Rory Abberton (seventh, 24:56.3) and junior Cameron Duquette (eighth, 24:57.9). Stanislaus State junior Jose Garcia broke up the Chico State quartet with a sixth-place finish in 24:55. Emanuel is the CCAA’s top returning finisher from the 2019 regional, placing 12th that season in 30:16.3.

After not finishing any better than fourth in the school’s PacWest Conference history, Fresno Pacific swept the top three spots to win its first conference title with a score of 38 points on October 23 in Kahuku, Hawaii. Freshman Patrick Kiprop won in a time of 24:38.2, 12 seconds ahead of junior teammate Xavier Smith (24:50.5). Sophomore Bryan Banuelos was third in 25:09.7.

Azusa Pacific was second with 51 points while Biola, who had won the last two PacWest titles, was third with 60 points. The Cougars had three top-10 finishers in sophomore Nixon Korir (fourth, 25:19.5) and senior Joshua Velasco (sixth, 25:24.3) and freshman Michael Schneider (ninth, 25:43.7). Biola was led by sophomore Ronald Kigen, who placed seventh in 25:24.3.

The PacWest hopes that some of the youth will break through to the podium as only two conference runners, both from Biola, made the top 25 in 2019 to earn All-West Region honors.

For the women, Stanislaus State accomplished the impossible and broke Chico State’s run of 12 consecutive CCAA championships. The Warriors placed three runners in the top 10, led by junior Kaela Dishion’s title run in a time of 20:41.7, to finish 17 points of the Wildcats with a score of 38 points. It was Stanislaus State’s first conference women’s cross country championship.

Warriors’ senior Sabrina Garcia was the runner-up in a time of 20:53 while senior Nancy Juarez placed seventh in 21:14.6. Juarez is the CCAA’s top returning finisher from the 2019 regional, placing seventh.

Chico State also landed three runners in the top-10 with its second-place finish, led by sophomore Gracie Dupuis’ third-place finish in 20:56.7. Junior Hannah Ryan placed fifth in 21:10.4 and junior Marissa D’Atri was sixth in 21:11.8. Cal State San Marcos junior Renee Laurenzana placed fourth in 21:06.8.

In the PacWest meet, Academy of Art pulled out a narrow one-point victory over Biola, winning with a score of 42 points. The Urban Knights landed three runners in the top 10, led by senior Natalia Novak’s first-place time of 22:15.1. Senior Hasna Kaarour was third in 22:31.5 and sophomore Delanie Dykes was seventh in 23:00.1. Kaarour placed 12th at the 2019 regional and is the PacWest’s top returning finisher.

Biola grouped extremely well with 1 minute, 3 seconds between the five scoring runners but placed only one runner ahead of Academy of Art’s top three. Freshmen Lynette Ruiz led the way, placing second in 22:19.2. Azusa Pacific took fourth, fifth and sixth places to place a close third. The Cougars were led by a fourth-place finish by junior Mikayla Akers in a time of 22:36.3.

ASH CREEK PRESERVE: The West Regional Championships will take place on one of the only dedicated cross country courses in the Northwest. The Ash Creek Preserve, located on the western edge of the Western Oregon University campus, is hosting its fourth West Regional meet. The meet will return to Monmouth in 2023 and 2025.

In addition to the regional meets, Ash Creek served as the site of four GNAC Championships meets, the most recent in 2018, and hosted the Pac-12 Championship in 2019.

The course is primarily grass with some dirt trails on the northern edge of the course. While mostly flat, runners will traverse through the Taruscio Berms on the eastern edge of the course, named for Western Oregon director of athletics Randi (Taruscio) Lydum.

While the grass and the competition usually make for fast times as Ash Creek, runners are likely to be slowed by a stormy pattern not unlike what GNAC athletes saw two weeks ago in Lacey. The Saturday forecast calls for over a quarter-inch of rain, race time temperatures around 48 degrees and winds from the south (which athletes will run into for the start and with for the finish) at nine to 11 miles per hour.

AWARDS & QUALIFYING: The top-25 finishers in each race will receive All-West Region honors. The top-three placing men’s and women’s teams will automatically advance to the national meet, which takes place on Saturday, November 20 at St. Leo, Florida. The top two individuals who are not part of a qualifying team will automatically advance to the national meet. In addition, all individuals who finish in the top five and are not part of a qualifying team will automatically advance.

Ten at-large teams and eight at-large individuals will be selected to advance to the national meet. The meet field will be announced via a press release on on Monday, November 8.

POLL POSITION: Always one of the strong regions in Division II cross country, nine nationally ranked teams will toe the line at Saturday’s meet.

Simon Fraser leads five ranked women’s squads at No. 8 in the USTFCCCA Division II National Poll, released on October 27. Stanislaus State is ranked No. 12, followed by Chico State at No. 15, Academy of Art at No. 28 and Biola at No. 30. Cal State San Marcos was among teams receiving votes.

Chico State is the highest-ranked men’s team at No. 7, followed by Fresno State at No. 20, Simon Fraser at No. 24 and Western Washington at No. 28. Biola was among teams receiving votes.

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