Updated: Sep 24, 2022
For the third straight year, Belmont cross country is represented on a national stage, but this time it’s senior Ben Naeger doing the running.
After a limited season due to COVID-19 restrictions, Naeger found himself in elite company when he was selected as an individual qualifier for the 2021 NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“It is definitely exciting,” Naeger said. “I knew I had a real chance to make it, but it was going to be pretty slim. I’ve been wanting to go to nationals for cross country since my sophomore year in high school, so now I finally got that opportunity.”
Only 38 individuals were selected to participate in the men’s championship through automatic qualifiers and the at-large large selection process. And due to the pandemic, the NCAA canceled the cross country regional championships, making it more difficult to capture an at-large bid in the national race.
The difficulty to get in the race presents a unique opportunity for Naeger, who serves as Belmont’s sole representative on the national stage this season.
It is an opportunity Naeger has worked for all season. In the Ohio Valley Conference Cross Country Championship, he placed second, giving himself at least a chance to be selected to go to nationals. But still, he wasn’t entirely sure.
“The qualifying standard is kinda tough for the first individual not on a team,” Naeger said. “I knew I would be racing some really fast guys, and I managed to beat some of them. And here we are, but I honestly didn’t expect this.”
The lead-up to this unexpected moment for Naeger and the Belmont cross country program started in his training regiment and commitment to getting better at the start of the season.
One of the elements he focused on all season was adding to his natural speed. An attribute that helped him make it to nationals.
“I definitely worked on the speed,” Naeger said. “I think I am in the best shape of my life right now.”
Throughout the abbreviated season, he enjoyed finishes near the top of the leaderboards in each race he ran. Now, competing in nationals is the result of all his hard work.
“I knew he was talented, but I could have never predicted that he would be competing in nationals,” Jeff Langdon, director of cross country and track and field, said. “As the season progressed he just kept getting better and better. He stayed healthy, he trained hard with training partners and he ran for the team.”
Naeger is one of only two male athletes from the OVC selected as individual qualifiers for nationals. The other is Ahmen Jaziri who runs for Eastern Kentucky University.
Jaziri edged Naeger out for first place in the OVC championship race by just two seconds and now the two will compete against each other again.
Though there are familiar ties with some of the runners Naeger will race against, the course and the race itself remain unfamiliar to him, he said.
So instead of getting overwhelmed with the weight of race expectations, Naeger is choosing to treat the entire event as though it is just another race.
“I’m going to prepare and keep relaxed,” Naeger said. “It’s just another race ultimately, just on a very big stage.”
On Monday Naeger will set out to represent Belmont well in the national race. The men are scheduled to start their event at 12:40 p.m, CT. And though both he and Langdon aren’t exactly sure how things will go, they are sure he will represent the program well.
“I am just so happy for him and proud of him. He ran for the team the entire season,” Langdon said. “All I know is that he will represent Belmont really well.”
This article written by Ian Kayanja.
A History of Belmont Men’s Cross Country NCAA Individual Qualifiers:
William Kemey (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002)
Ryan Snellen (2004)
Matt Miller (2013)
Jacob McLeod (2018)
Kaleb McLeod (2018, 2019)
Ben Naeger (Spring, 2021)