St. Olaf has historically featured top cross country teams among its most accomplished athletic programs. Since 2008, the men’s team has advanced to the NCAA Division III National Championships in seven out of eight seasons with heightened success during the past three years. The Oles became national champions in 2013 for the first time in school history, and though they were unable to replicate their victory during the next two seasons, a second place finish in 2014 and a fourth place finish last year were still honorable achievements. Likewise, the women’s team advanced to seven consecutive NCAA Championships of their own prior to 2016, most notably coming in eighth back in 2012. In the past decade, St. Olaf has become a perpetual national threat, always a favorite to win the MIAC, advance past Central Regionals and fare reasonably well in the final race against the country’s finest runners.
The 2016 teams were no different heading into the national championships in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 19, with the women’s team coming first overall in regionals and earning a bid to its eighth straight national race, while the men earned a bid of their own with a third place finish.
However, this time around neither team managed to finish among the top ten on the national stage. The men’s team finished 15th overall, its lowest national placement since failing to qualify for the contest back in 2010, while the women’s team ended the race in 32nd, dead last, its worst finish since 2008. It was both teams’ lowest placing for the entire season.
A slow start is to blame for the Ole men’s lackluster finish – through the first 2,000 meters of the race, St. Olaf lagged behind the majority of the field in 20th place. Fortunately, Thomas Lerdall ’19, William Anderson ’19 and Alex Berhe ’19 picked up the pace as the race progressed, finishing with times of 25:30.9, 25:35.1 and 25:36.0, respectively. The trio of sophomores gave the Oles enough depth over the latter half of their competitors to make up ground and accelerate five spots with a final score of 384, barely edging out Allegheny College which finished with 386. The perseverance and tenacity that the underclassmen displayed on a national stage with such a high level of competition is encouraging. This was a very young team that faced tremendous adversity this season and made significant strides to improve. If those three continue to progress during the coming seasons, then by the time they enter their final year at St. Olaf, the Oles could be finishing much higher than 15th.
Undisputed team MVP Joe Coffey ’17 will depart in the spring, however, after leading the team with remarkable performances throughout the season, most notably coming first overall in the MIAC Championships. Coffey replicated his 23rd overall placement at the Central Regionals with another finish in 23rd, posting a team best 24:46.7 time, shattering his previous personal best of 25:33.94. Losing Coffey to graduation is a bittersweet prospect, but he saved his best performance for when it counted most, cementing his legacy as the headline runner of 2016 not just at St. Olaf, but in the entire conference.
The Ole women couldn’t manage to overcome their national competition, finishing last among the 32 teams in attendance, but they still managed to post some admirable individual performances despite the lackluster final team placing. Emerging star Mary Naas ’19 crossed the finish line with a time of 21:42.3, netting her 61st place with her best time of the season, the culmination of constant improvement throughout 2016. Naas finished second among all MIAC runners in attendance, losing out only to Macalester’s Kimberly Meyer – if she keeps steadily refining her talents over the next two seasons, she can easily become a great leader for the Oles, as well as the conference’s top runner.
St. Olaf rounded out its team effort with solid performances by veterans Jessica Bentley ’18 (22:56.4) and Jordan Lutz ’18 (22:57.7), both of whom should transition into leadership roles as seniors next season, and exceptional races by rookies Bryony Hawgood ’20 (22:54.0) and Lisa Fisher ’20 (22.57.7), which inspires hope for the future. Sadly, the Oles say goodbye to Jamie Hoornaert ’17, who, like Coffey, went out with a bang, finishing at 22.46.7, her best time of the season and a slight improvement over her 22:47 finish a year ago during the NCAA Championships.