Weekend Preview: NAIA Conference Championships Weekend

Conference Championships Weekend is upon us!

We’ll see 19 conference championships at the NAIA level over the next few days, as seven leagues will crown champions on Friday and 12 more on Saturday. That’s in addition to the two other conferences that held their championships last weekend to bring us to a grand total of 21.

From The USTFCCCA InfoZone: Meets & Results | USTFCCCA Scoreboard

At stake in every conference meet is one team automatic qualifier per gender to the for the 2021 NAIA Cross Country Championships, which are set for Friday, November 19, at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington.

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Conferences with 12 or more teams can earn a second automatic qualifier, but that’s contingent on the runner-up being included among the top-30 in the final NAIA National Coaches’ Poll, which is slated to be released on Monday. The rankings also will be crucial for the at-large berths that will fill the national field to its full 36-team allotment for both genders.

St. Francis (Ill.) – ranked No. 1 in both sets of the most recent NAIA National Coaches’ Polls: women’s (unanimous); men’s (nearly unanimous) – will certainly attract attention as they attempt a sixth-straight sweep of the team titles in the Chicagoland Conference on Saturday.

Two other conferences caught our eye based on the depth of top-level competition in both the men’s and women’s races. A closer look shows that nothing should ever be taken for granted in either the Cascade Conference or Crossroads League.

Crossroads League Championships

Date: Saturday, November 6 | Location: Huntington, Indiana

Action is set Saturday at the Huntington University Cross Country Course in Huntington, Indiana, with the men’s 8k starting at 10:30 a.m. ET, followed by the women’s 5k at 11:45.

This league has provided the men’s team winner or runner-up (or both) in each of the last three NAIA national championships. This year a loaded field of five ranked teams is led by No. 3 Indiana Wesleyan, which held the No. 1 position for three weeks previously.

Not far behind in the rankings are two teams that can provide recent testimony with how tight this competition can be in No. 5 Taylor (Ind.) and No. 10 Huntington (Ind.). Huntington won last year’s Crossroads title by nine points over Taylor, but the Trojans turned the tables in April at the NAIA Championships, winning over the runner-up Foresters. Taylor can claim a win over current No. 1 St. Francis while claiming its own Ray Bullock Invitational in September.

IWU last won the team title in 2019, while Taylor – runner-up the last five years (and 7 of the last 8) – will be looking for its first since 1994. The circuit also includes No. 22 Grace (Ind.), No. 25 Marian (Ind.) and RV Goshen, all with at-large potential to reach the national championships. Their finishing order will be critical to their chances of earning a berth.

Individual honors will also garner national attention. Huntington’s Haile Stutzman won the super-deep NAIA Great Lakes Challenge two weeks ago over Daniel Gerber of Taylor. Stutzman was the Crossroads individual champ in 2019, while Gerber was runner-up last year when Stutzman was 12th.

In the women’s race, don’t be surprised to see No. 4 Taylor impose its will in seeking a ninth-straight Crossroads title. However, this is the deepest conference in the nation with five ranked teams, and an incredible fight looms as the final order will contribute greatly to the final rankings and who is ultimately selected for the national field as only one spot is guaranteed.

No. 15 Grace (Ind.) is currently the hottest in the chase pack, entering the top-25 for the first time last week as the Lancers had men’s and women’s squads ranked together for the first time in school history. Not far behind Grace in a close bunch are No. 17 St. Francis (Ind.), No. 18 Huntington (Ind.) and No. 23 Indiana Wesleyan, as well as RV Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio) and Marian (Ind.), which received votes in three previous polls.

Huntington was women’s runner-up last year, ending a seven-year streak of Indiana Wesleyan taking that position.

Cascade Conference Championships

Date: Friday, November 5 | Location: Klamath Falls, Oregon

If history is any indication, competition will be fierce as racing starts Friday at the Running Y Ranch Resort in Klammath Falls, Oregon. The men’s 8k is scheduled for 11 a.m. PT with the women’s 5k following an hour later, and both contests should be considered must-see events.

Competition is deepest in the men’s race as no less than six ranked squads will line up. It also looks to be extremely close – four programs bunched between No. 8 and No. 15, with three of them earning conference-high honors at some point this year.

Forecasting the meet won’t be as easy as predicting the weather, which has a consensus of wet and cold conditions – nothing new in this neck of the woods as cross country enters championship season.

This will be the year’s first meeting of more than four of the Cascade’s ranked men’s squads, let alone all six. Most recently, No. 8 Southern Oregon led the pack of ranked teams after winning the Warrior Invitational in Rocklin, California, last week over No. 14 College of Idaho and No. 15 Oregon Tech. A week earlier, the three other ranked squads competed at the Inland Empire Championships in Lewiston, Idaho, with No. 12 Lewis-Clark (Idaho) finishing ahead of No. 20 Eastern Oregon and No. 24 Northwest (Wash.).

In early-October, four of the major combatants met for the only time this year, with Oregon Tech (54), Lewis-Clark (63), Southern Oregon (74) and Eastern Oregon (82) finishing in a tight 1-2-3-4 at the Charles Bowles Willamette Invitational in Salem, Oregon.

Lewis-Clark is reigning Cascade champs, having won March’s “2020” edition in its first year in the conference by four points over this year’s hosts, Oregon Tech. College of Idaho – winners in 2018 and 2019 – was third, just nine points behind the winners. Southern Oregon missed that meet due to pandemic issues.

In the women’s race, most look for No. 6 College of Idaho to secure a third-straight Cascade crown. The Yotes return four scorers from 2020, a squad that also completed back-to-back runner-up finishes at the NAIA national championships. A third Cascade title would match their three-year run from 2011-13, which also included a pair of NAIA runner-up finishes.

No. 13 Southern Oregon and No. 25 Northwest (Wash.) are next in line, with RV Lewis-Clark and RV Oregon Tech also in the hunt. Both Southern Oregon and Lewis-Clark was ranked as high as No. 10 earlier in the season.