CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — If everything went according to the polls, the Southern Oregon University cross country teams knew they’d be in the mix for the men’s and women’s combined title at the NAIA Championships. When both teams outperformed their rankings Friday afternoon at Seminole Valley Park, there was no doubt.
The Raiders, whose men ranked fifth and women ranked seventh when the meet started, captured the combined championship for the second time as both teams took fourth place in the team standings. Both teams produced two All-Americans — 16th-place Noah Oberriter and 24th-place Brandon Kelsey for the men, 26th-place Kayle Blackmore and 30th-place Jenna Storms for the women — as the SOU men were top-four for the 10th time in 11 seasons and the women established a new best finish in the team’s history.
As usual at postseason meets, the Raiders waited patiently to make their moves. The men were in eighth place midway through their 8,000-meter race before jumping several teams, including College of Idaho, which knocked the Raiders off for the Cascade Conference championship two weeks ago but landed at No. 7 in the national standings. The women were in 12th a mile into their 5K but easily outdid their previous best showing of seventh place (2010, ‘16).
“Both teams really executed our plan,” SOU head coach Grier Gatlin said. “We got in good position, which is tough in a race with 350 people, and were aggressive in the second half. We did really well at committing to what we set out to do.”
Oberriter, a senior and SOU’s only returning national scorer, finished 16th for the second year in a row for more All-America recognition and clocked in at 24 minutes 51 seconds. Kelsey came in at 24:57.0 and all five Raiders scorers hit the finish line within 43 seconds of each other: 49th-place Kevin VanDyke (25:24.3), 60th-place Gabe Loader (25:29.0) and 74th-place Kalen Yeager (25:32.5). When the Raiders got fourth place last year, their fourth and fifth scorers were 95th and 97th.
Oklahoma City won the men’s title with 116 points and an average time (25:06) that was nine seconds faster than SOU’s. Indiana Wesleyan was second with 143 points, St. Francis (Ill.) third with 162, and SOU’s 181 points cleared fifth-place St. Mary (Kan.) by 37 points.
In the women’s 5K, Blackmore (18:00.7) and Storms (18:01.8), both seniors, became SOU’s second-ever All-America women’s duo, though Blackmore was also part of the first with Jessa Perkinson in 2016. Less than 37 seconds separated their scorers, which also included 36th-place Ariana Toland (18:10.5), 57th-place Bree Weber (18:24.9) and 82nd-place Lauren Fillipow (18:37.4).
The performance was marked by dramatic individual improvements from previous national meets. Storms moved up 39 spots in the individual standings over last year, Weber did 98 spots better than last year’s meet, and Toland had a 105-spot improvement over her last appearance in 2016.
After placing 24th in 2016, Blackmore was out for last year’s national meet due to injury. She just missed All-CCC status two weeks ago but bounced back with one of the best performances of her career, earning All-America accolades for the fifth time overall.
Oregon Tech claimed the women’s team title with 126 points, followed by Madonna (Mich.)’s 132, Taylor (Ind.)’s 134 and SOU’s 192. SCAD Atlanta was 49 points behind the Raiders in fifth place.
SOU’s men’s and women’s combined total was 373 points. St. Francis (Ill.) was second in the combined standings but well behind with 422 points, producing a third-place men’s team and eighth-place women’s team.
The Raiders previously won the combined title in 2010, which was the first year their men’s and women’s teams both qualified for the meet.
“I’m super proud of the women for getting to the podium for the first time ever and for the men to come back after losing the conference meet to get another trophy,” Gatlin said. “It was a great group this year.”