Going into the 2023 cross country season, expectations were high for both the Belmont Men and Women’s Cross Country teams.
The women’s team was predicted to finish No. 1 in the Missouri Valley Conference while the men’s team was projected to finish No. 4.
With both teams securing top 10 finishes in the NCAA South Regional meet in Gainesville, Florida, those expectations were met.
“We competed well at regionals,” junior Kaitlyn Vanderkolk said. “We were ranked ninth and finished seventh, beating a lot of programs. We kind of proved ourselves and followed through with the rest of our season.”
Vanderkolk even competed in the NCAA Championships, the first time for Belmont since 2015.
Vanderkolk finished 86th and earned all-region honors.
For her, competing in the NCAA Championships was a dream come true.
“I’d say that was probably the most special thing,” Vanderkolk said. “Qualifying for NCAA is one of my big goals for my time here at Belmont, so it was fun to get to do that.”
For coach Jeff Langdon, it was the culmination of three years of hard work.
“She’s been really good for us the past two years, but this year was a significant breakout for her,” Langdon said. “She really, really stepped up her game and it was just great for the program in terms of recognition, and then she went to Nationals and had a really solid performance there.”
Assistant Coach Kate Bucknam, who works with the women’s team, praised Vanderkolk’s performance.
“She blew it out of the water,” Bucknam said. “It’s unbelievable how competitive the region was this year, and she earned that bid to Nationals.”
But for Vanderkolk, the success wasn’t just an individual accomplishment.
Her teammates also deserve praise, she said.
“The whole season as a whole was really successful for our team,” Vanderkolk said. “We worked really hard and it paid off.”
On the men’s team, senior Zac Schaffer stood out with a top-five finish in the MVC Championships.
Schaffer also finished 44th at the Regional Championships, accomplishing his goal of finishing 45th or better, he said.
Langdon said that he was proud of how much Schaffer improved throughout the season.
“Zac really stepped up,” Langdon said. “He was making 45 second improvements this year from the previous year. It's a breakout year for him.”
But while Schaffer had an impressive season himself, he said he couldn’t have done it without his teammates.
“I want to give a lot of credit to my teammates,” Schaffer said. “People really stepped up. There’s kind of a new person stepping up every time, which was good to have.”
Schaffer said that teammwork was showcase during a meet at the University of Alabama, where they competed against many big Southeastern Conference schools.
“The Alabama meet was one of our highlights,” he said. “That was probably our best team race. We beat a lot of teams that were kinda ranked ahead of us previously.”
But with the season being over, Langdon said he is already looking to future seasons.
“We’re really excited about the prospects for moving up even further next year,” he said. “I think the future is really bright for both men and women.”
Even looking forward to the future, Bucknam said she couldn’t be more proud of this team.
“They’re the true definition of student athletes and I think they represent this university well. On top of just how they perform, they’re even better people,” Bucknam said. “It’s not just how well they’ve done on the course. It’s all the other stuff that they do that I think makes this team really great and fun to coach. I think the university should be really proud of who they are and what they're doing day in and day out beyond their sport.”
This article was written by Abby Thomas