Going into the 2023 cross country season, men’s and women’s head coach Jeff Langdon expected his team to perform well.
“Expectations were definitely high,” Langdon said. “We have so many returning athletes that we felt like we were just going to continue to get better and better.”
Now, heading into the Missouri Valley Conference championships on Friday, the women’s team was ranked No. 1 in the women’s MVC pre-championship poll while the men’s team was ranked No. 3 in the men’s poll.
The women’s team won their first two races, the Belmont Opener and the John McNichols Invitational, and finished top-ten in the Paul Short Run and the Crimson Classic.
The men’s team also finished top-ten in every competition including a trio of finishes in second place.
But although he’s impressed with his teams, Langdon knows the goal is to secure a championship on Friday.
“I think I'm most impressed with the consistency that we've shown throughout the year. And now's kind of the time where they're resting a little bit and getting their legs back under them,” Langdon said. We're expecting the best on Friday. I think, probably if we didn't win, there'd be some disappointment.”
As part of last year’s team that placed second in the MVC Championships, junior Kaitlyn Vanderkolk was focused on improving.
“I think as a team we were really excited to build off of last year. Getting second at MVCs was amazing,” Vanderkolk said. “Individually I just wanted to improve. I had a good year of summer training, so it’s exciting to see that payoff.”
Vanderkolk has been the star for the women’s team this season, earning MVC Runner of the Week twice and winning the John McNichols Invitational.
And despite the stakes being raised, Vanderkolk knows that consistency will be key to finishing at the top.
“Being consistent through practices and building confidence throughout the season has helped a lot,” Vanderkolk said. “I think doing the same thing I've been doing and not overthinking it is important. We're going into the home course, so that'll be exciting to have a home field advantage.”
For junior Ethan Hammer, the men’s team finishing fourth last season left a sour taste in his mouth.
“I think there's three legitimate teams, and we're one of them,” Hammer said. “We finished fourth last year. We kind of wanted a little bit of redemption to get above that.”
Hammer said that the team has tried to keep morale high throughout the season to ensure it performs its best.
“We need five guys. We can't just have one or two guys perform,” Hammer said. “So we’ve kept the atmosphere good going throughout the season and through the highs and lows. That’s been the mentality going forward to have that redemption.”
Capturing that championship would accomplish Hammer’s goal when he came to Belmont.
“I came here to win a championship in the conference. We've been up at in the top three spots the past two years in the OVC and the MVC,” Hammer said. “To get this championship would just mean so much for me being here for four years.”
While the win would be a dream come true for the runners, women’s coach Kate Bucknam said that the win would be a step in the right direction for the team.
“It would be huge in only our second year in this conference. I think it would show that we've done a really good job of preparing,” Bucknam said. “The door’s opened a little bit more this year than in the years past. We're ready to jump on that opportunity to win. You don't get those very often. It would set the tone for the rest of the department.”
This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer