SAINT LEO, Fla. – After weeks if not months of preparation, the world of NCAA Division II cross country and nearly 600 of the nation's top runners will descend on the Saint Leo University campus for the 2016 NCAA Division II Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships.
The championship races will be held Saturday, Nov. 19, at The Abbey Course at Saint Leo University, located just south of State Road 52 across from Saint Leo's University Campus. The men's 10K championship race will take place at 8:30 a.m., followed by the women's 6K championship race at 9:45 a.m.
Nearly 80 different Division II institutions from across the United States – including both the Saint Leo men's and women's cross country teams – as well as Simon Fraser University, the only NCAA member from Canada, will be competing for the national championship trophies.
Also in attendance at this Saturday's meet with be the Colorado School of Mines men's cross country team and the Adams State (Colo.) women's squad – the two defending national champion teams from last season's NCAA championship in Joplin, Mo.
Adams State's victory in the 2015 women's cross country championship ended Grand Valley State's (Mich.) three-year run as national champions. On the men's side, Colorado Mines' victory broke Adams State's three-year stranglehold on the title, and marked just the second time over the last eight seasons that a team other than Adams State had come out on top.
Both Saint Leo cross country teams will enter Saturday's championship with individuals who will be near the top of the standings by the end of the day, while the teams themselves will be fighting for a top 20 finish.
The Saint Leo women will be led by junior Colett Rampf, who became Saint Leo's first cross country All-American a year ago by virtue of her 23rd place finish. So far this season, Rampf has set new Saint Leo records at both the 5K and 6K distances, and is primed to crack the top 20 individually at Saturday's championship.
Junior Lauren Csubak and sophomores Alyssa Bayliff and Laura Tobin have consistently been the Lions' 2-3-4 runners throughout the season, with senior Natalie McCormick and sophomore Noemi Anaya each providing the no. 5 runner points in different events in 2016. Junior Haley Roussell will round out the Lions' team of seven runners that will be trying to improve upon Saint Leo's 27th place finish last season in Joplin, Mo.
"Last year, we had some tapering issues especially on the women's side," said Kent Reiber, Saint Leo's head cross country coach. "This year, we've been a little more thoughtful and taken a different approach to how we've tapered our women. We've been a more aggressive in the workouts for a little longer, and then just starting to taper off this week."
On the men's side, freshman Ronald Cheserek dominated virtually every race he was in throughout the 2016 season, and set a Saint Leo 8K record at the Lehigh University Paul Short run in early October. He finished second at the South Region championship meet two weeks ago at The Abbey Course, defeated only by defending individual national champion Alfred Chelanga from Shorter University.
Cheserek trailed Chelanga by 20 seconds at the South Region meet; crossing the finish line within 20 seconds of Chelanga at nationals should put the Saint Leo rookie in range for a top-10 finish, and would make Cheserek the first Saint Leo men's cross country All-American.
Senior Rafal Matuszczak turned in a strong performance at the South Region meet with a sixth-place finish, and he, along with senior Niclas Bez, and juniors Anthony Deleva and Joseph Fuller are expected to be the points earners for the Lions. Senior Adam Urbaniak and freshman Chris Cabret will round out the Saint Leo seven for the national championship race.
"On the men's side, we've been just trying to stay consistent with what we've been doing, and continually increasing the intensity a little bit," said Reiber. "But going to nationals last year, I don't think as a team we had the best races, as a whole. We had some outstanding individual performances, but I don't think we were quite as prepared to go out there and compete as a group. I definitely think we're there this year."
Two items are the "X" factors for Saint Leo, and may be enough to fuel the Lions to unprecedented levels of success at the national meet.
Fanning the flames for both Saint Leo teams over much of the last two weeks has been the disappointment of finishing second on their home course at the South Region meet back on November 5.
"Getting second in this region is great – it's still a big feat to do – but it's increased our drive a little bit. We've been pushing a little more, and we're definitely motivated now than we have been at any point this season."
Then there's the obvious – the Lions will be running on a course they know well, and will be used to running in a climate that will be more comfortable for them than, say, the two defending national champion squads out of the Rockies.
"I don't think you can measure it," said Reiber when asked to measure the advantages to his squad of hosting the meet.
"Having the ability to sleep in your own bed, not having to disrupt your regular schedule, being able to practice on the same course you've been practicing on all year…" said Reiber, rattling off the benefits. "Our kids know when to push on that course, our kids know what it feels like to go up that hill the second time – they have the mental memory of the fatigue of what it takes to run a good race on this course. Now that we've raced on it multiple times this season, we've got more of an advantage than nearly every team in the country that's coming to this race."
"We're very, very fortunate to be able to host this," said Reiber.