|When the Monmouth College cross country team runs at the Midwest Conference Championships on Saturday, they'll hope their depth and a little good timing results in a high team finish.
The Fighting Scots' women enter the meet at Rock Cut State Park near Rockford as the defending champions with five all-conference runners returning. The men are trying to improve on their back-to-back third-place finishes after winning the team title in 2006.
The meet, hosted by Beloit College, will begin at 11 a.m. and will be run on a trail-type course - 6K for the women and 8K for the men. The narrow, winding layout through heavy timber with moderate hills means those runners wanting to keep track of their opponents had better not let them get too far ahead and can't expect a lot of room to pass if it gets congested.
"It will be easy to lose track of where you are in the race if you're not really focused," said coach Roger Haynes. "We really don't try to pack race as a team. Normally, we try to run our own type of race and let the chips fall where they may. On this course, if you get 20 meters separation from someone, you might not see them again for a long time. For this course, we'll try to pair up with two or three runners from other teams."
Of those runners from other teams, Megan O'Grady of Carroll and Jenny Scherer of St. Norbert have the top 6K times among the women. The Scots' Mary Kate Beyer and Katie Staab are ranked third and fourth, less than 90 seconds back of league-leader O'Grady.
Monmouth's women return the entire squad that won the first title in their history last year and have added some newcomers who should have an impact. The Scots own four of the top 20 spots (only the top 20 at the meet are named all-conference) in the latest top performances list. Freshman Rachel Bowden is ranked 15th and senior Amy Aghababian - all-conference a year ago - has the MWC's 19th-best time.
Carroll, St. Norbert and Grinnell appear to be the main contenders to dethrone the Scots. Combined, the three teams have garnered 12 of the top 20 times. Of course, the Scots ran a "perfect storm" race last season when all their women were at their peak performance.
"I'm not counting on it, but it could happen again," said Haynes. "Mary Kate and Katie are running well, and Rachel has a great shot at a top 20 finish. She's a pretty courageous runner for having so little experience in cross country."
Another freshman - Brittney Frazier - along with all-conference junior Whitney Didier, have posted times that will threaten the top 20. That team depth may be just enough for a high finish.
Like the women, the men have a clear-cut top two runners. Geoff Bird and Jon Welty have consistently led the Scots this season and have the fifth and sixth-best MWC times. Last year's champion, Grinnell, owns the top four spots.
"We don't have that one really fast runner," reported Haynes of his men's team. "We've got a couple of very good runners up front and then a lot of team depth after that."
There is strength in numbers and Monmouth isn't lagging far behind the front runners with six runners in the top 20 and in contention for all-conference honors. Senior Damon Bautista has seen limited competition this fall but ran his best race just two weeks ago and has the league's 14th-best time. A trio of freshmen - Jake Barr, Connor Shields and Paul Davies - are also in the mix. Barr is ranked 12th, Shields 15th and Davies 18th. Veterans Alan Rosiquez, Craig Maher and Tim Bentz are among Haynes' deep stable of contenders anxious for Saturday's competition.
"The guys are focused and ready for the weekend," praised Haynes. "They'll be very aggressive and go out and challenge the other runners. We have a lot of guys who have a top 20 spot in their sights."
Last year, the women aligned the planets to take the team title with a pair of bona fide lead runners and a solid supporting cast. Monmouth's men hope to use that recipe from a year ago to cook up a top-three finish.
(Monmouth College Athletics)