Meet Preview: 2021 NAIA Cross Country Championships

The NAIA kicks off National Championships Weekend with Friday’s running of its 66th men’s and 42nd women’s National Cross Country Championships. The meet returns to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington.

Not only will the location be familiar – the seventh time since 2009 – but the time of year will be as well since the “2020” meet was postponed five months to April due to pandemic concerns.

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Many expect wet conditions as weather forecasts show rain likely early with temperatures perhaps reaching 50F. Racing starts at 10:30 a.m. PT with the men’s 8k, followed by the women’s 5k an hour later.

Is it time for a sweep? The NAIA National Coaches’ Polls have St. Francis (Ill.) at No. 1 in both the men’s and women’s computations, but a sweep of titles by one institution is rare – it’s happened only three times. The last, however, came in 2017 at Fort Vancouver (by British Columbia).

Here’s an overview of what we think to expect in a day that always provides excitement.

Men’s 8k Championship

No. 1 St. Francis (Ill.) appears to be peaking at the right time. The Fighting Saints were ninth in April’s NAIA Championships and return all seven runners from that squad, which this season rose in the rankings from No. 8 to No. 3 to finally a near-unanimous No. 1 after winning the Chicagoland Conference title with 21 points. Omar Paramo, sixth in the April NAIA meet, is the team’s top runner, which has improved its lineup with additional runners from a deep stable. St. Francis last won the NAIA men’s title in 2012, when the meet was also held at Fort Vancouver.

Challengers look ready, however.

Saint Mary (Kan.) has been No. 2 all year in the rankings and would love to improve on their best-ever finish of second in this meet from 2015. The Spires will surely be looking for revenge after losing to St. Francis by 9 points at the loaded NAIA Great Lakes Challenge four weeks ago. Saint Mary dominated the KCAC Championships with 23 points behind individual runner-up Johnathan Bowen leading four scorers who return from April’s fifth-place team.

No. 3 Milligan (Tenn.) continues an impressive rise, including a first-place vote in the final two coaches’ polls. The Buffs return four scorers from its squad that finished a program-high third in April. Aaron Jones, who was eighth in the April NAIA meet, twice led a 1-2-3 sweep as Milligan won the Appalachian Conference Championships with 17 points and NAIA Southern States Challenge with 18 points.

Rivals from the Crossroads League also figure to be in the mix.

Taylor (Ind.) is the defending NAIA champions, but their Crossroads victory two weeks ago was the program’s first since 1994. Competition on the team starts at the top, as Derek Van Prooyen and Daniel Gerber have each been the No. 1 runner twice this year. The Trojans’ top runner from April’s NAIA Championships, however, is Alex Helmuth, who was fifth overall.

Indiana Wesleyan is No. 5 in the rankings after reaching No. 1 earlier in the year. The Wildcats lost the tough Crossroads title to Taylor by 10 points after finishing 40 points ahead of them at the NAIA Great Lakes Challenge. IWU has had three different runners occupy the team’s top spot in Steven Ott, Landon Wakeman and Eli Fullerton.

Individually, Zouhair Talbi of No. 6 Oklahoma City seeks to become the first repeat men’s champion since 2010-11. He is undefeated in three races this fall, including the Sooner Conference Championships, NAIA Mid-States Classic and Chile Pepper Festival. Among the leading competitors not already named above is Talbi’s teammate, Shimales Abebe, who was runner-up in the April NAIA race.

Another top threat individually is Santiago Hardy of Antelope Valley (Calif.), who is undefeated in five races since losing on Sept. 3 to a non-NAIA runner. Also undefeated against NAIA competition since September is Haile Stutzman of No. 9 Huntington (Ind.), who won the Crossroads League and NAIA Great Lakes Challenge titles.  A number of runners from the host Cascades Conference could challenge; freshman Logan Hunt of College of Idaho won the title two weeks ago by more than 11 seconds.

Women’s 5k Championship

St. Francis (Ill.) has resided as a unanimous No. 1 all season except for one week by one vote. The defending NAIA champions return all seven from April’s winning team, but this fall the No. 1 team spot has moved from Daly Galloway in April to Sabrina Baftiri to Laisha Corona then back to Baftiri, who led a 1-2-3-4 Fighting Saints finish in winning the Chicagoland Championships with 17 points. A St. Francis victory would be the meet’s first back-to-back women’s titles since 2016-17.

The biggest challenger looks like Milligan (Tenn.), who has occupied the No. 2 position in the rankings since being No. 4 in the PreSeason poll. The Buffs are poised to smash their previous national best finish of seventh last year (and in 2017). Milligan was impressive in winning the Appalachian Conference title with 18 points and NAIA Southern States Challenge with 20 points, both times over No. 8 Montreat (N.C.). Freshman Alyssa Bearzi led the 1-2 conference finish by Milligan in reversing the order from the Southern States Challenge, won by Lemi Wutz. Neither star is one of the Buffs’ six returners from last year, demonstrating the program’s depth.

No. 3 Cornerstone (Mich.) is also ready to bust a huge program best as the Golden Eagles’ previous high finish in this meet was 13th in 2019. Cornerstone can claim the closest race with St. Francis this year, finishing 14 points behind in second place in the loaded NAIA Great Lakes Challenge. Freshman Anna Martin, who won individual titles at the Great Lakes Challenge and Wolverine-Hoosier Conference Championships, leads a scoring five that runs close together.

Taylor (Ind.) is ranked No. 4 after winning the tough Crossroads League title over four other ranked teams. The Trojans started the year No. 2 after finishing third in April’s NAIA Championships. Abbey Brennan was Taylor’s top runner at the Crossroads meet as runner-up.

Saint Mary (Kan.) is looking to make the top-5 for the first time after earning the program’s first top-10 finish in April. The Spires have been ranked No. 5 all season since Week 1. Freshman Reagan Hiebert overtook previous team No. 1 Alyssa Armendariz in winning the KCAC Championships.

A potentially wide-open individual race looms as the above-mentioned leaders will be joined by the 3-4-5 finishers from April’s NAIA Championships in Becca Richtman of No. 21 Montana Tech, Ariana Anderson of No. 11 Embry-Riddle (Ariz.) and Allika Pearson of John Brown (Ark.). Richtman, a two-time National Athlete of the Week winner this fall, was second in the Frontier League to another contender, Sydney Little Light of Rocky Mountain (Mont.). Not be overlooked are Cascades Conference champion Ellyse Tingelstad of No. 6 College of Idaho. and Crossroads League winner Alex Ebetino of No. 22 St. Francis (Ind.).