PITTSBURGH – Capping an historic season, the University of Sioux Falls Men's Cross Country team ran to a program-best finish at the NCAA Championships on Saturday. Led by All-American Mason Phillips' program-best seventh-place individual finish, the Cougars tallied 214 points in the race, their lowest point total in their fourth appearance at the Division II national meet.
"It was a fitting way to finish this season," third-year Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Doug Petersen said. "Last year we were so gassed, we just wanted to finish the race. So for these guys to accomplish what they did in these conditions shows how talented and gritty they are. I am so proud of this team."
With snow and rain hitting the racecourse earlier in the week, the 2,000-meter loop across Schenley Park was soft and muddy even before the runners made their first way around the course. Despite the conditions, the Cougars' steady strategy proved to be effective as they methodically improved their team standing as the race wore on. Through the first third, USF moved from 10th to seventh, then climbed to sixth at the 8k mark, improving their team score at each 1,000-meter split.
Over the final 1,200 meters, the Cougars cut 11 points off their team score, overtaking Chico State for the final spot in the top five. Grand Valley State earned the team victory with 89 points, followed by Colorado School of Mines (99), Western Colorado (117), and Adams State (175), showing the Cougars belonged with the elites of Division II cross country. Sioux Falls also becomes just the second different NSIC program to earn a top-five finish at the Division II Cross Country Championships since the conference expanded to 16 teams in 2012.
A year after winning the individual title in five races last season, Phillips was keen to improve on his national-meet finish from a year ago. The junior from Bailey, Colo. became the first USF runner to place in the top 10 of the NCAA Championships, earning his second All-American honor to pair with his 15th-place finish in 2017. Through 2,800 meters, Phillips was firmly in the top 20 and he never dropped a spot over the remainder of the race. In the final 1,200 meters, he passed four runners, surging from 11th to 7th for a critical low stick for the Cougars with a final time of 32:27.3 over the 10k course.
"Mason is a special runner," Petersen said. "He gives our team a chance to compete with any other program with his performance at every meet. He really showed that he belongs with those top runners and gives our team such great confidence every time we race."
USF's next two runners, Zach Lundberg and Steven Brown, also showed their mettle in the tough conditions, climbing to finish 50th and 51st, respectively. At the halfway point, Omaha, Neb. native Lundberg was in 80th place then caught 30 runners in the final 5.2k for his top-50 finish at 33:49.2. Brown's surge came in the home stretch of the course, a soppy 800-meter climb towards the finish line. Between the 8,800-meter split and the finish line, the junior from Orangevale, Calif. passed 12 runners to finish one spot behind his teammate with a time of 33:50.7.
"Zach and Steven are very different runners in the track season," Petersen said, "but they showed today how talented they really are. Both of those guys were awesome today and fought their way with every split and finished strong."
Described by his coach as the "soul of the team," senior Jase Kraft made his third and final appearance at the NCAA Championships count with a gutsy 62nd-place finish. A fifth-year senior from Wessington Springs, S.D., Kraft's best finish came in 2014, when he came in 142nd as USF's fifth runner as part of their eighth-place team finish. This year, he surged into the top 30 by the third split and was 40th at the halfway point. In the final 5,200 meters, Kraft held steady, fighting off many runners to finish with a time of 33:59.8.
"Jase has embraced his role on the team as the leader," Petersen said. "The rest of the guys call him 'dad' or 'old man,' and he showed that leadership today. He keeps this team focused and it was such a great way for him to finish his cross country career with a performance like this."
Any cross country runner or fan knows the importance of a team's fifth runner. For the Cougars on Saturday, it was freshman Shodo Mahamed, who earned the praise of his coach with "the most impressive run of the season" in his key 91st overall finish. A native of Sioux Falls, S.D., the former Washington High School standout proved he belonged on the national stage with a steady surge up the individual leaderboard. By the midway point of the race, Mahamed had moved into the top 120 of the 261-runner field, cutting nearly 80 points off his score. In the second half of the race, Maahmed then improved 28 more places, finishing with a time of 34:28.3 for USF's critical fifth scorer.
"How about Shodo!" Petersen said of his talented freshman. "To get that kind of performance out of a freshman in his first national meet is amazing. He proved a lot today, not only to me, but to the rest of his team and the competition. He is a testament to how far this program has come and is only going to improve."
Juniors Dan Armstrong and Billy Beseman put together impressive races for the Cougars, capping off the unprecedented season for the program. Sioux Falls, S.D. native Armstrong was steady all race, picking off runners all race, including 20 over the final 4,200 meters, to come in 146th overall at 35:11.3. Beseman, who hails from Perham, Minn., battled the hilly and muddy course, finishing with a time of 36:08.9, which placed him 203rd.
"Dan and Billy really showed the depth of our team," Petersen said. "Dan has improved so much over the past three years, which shows how much he has bought into this program. Billy is such an important member of our team and even on an off day, he showed how strong of a runner he is, running a tough course and finishing strong. I am excited to see what both of these guys have in store for the track season and what they will do next cross season as seniors."
The Cougars capped off their brilliant 2018 season with a fifth-place finish at the national meet, falling on spot short of the podium, but proved they were ready to and can compete with the elite programs of NCAA Division II cross country. USF captured their first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title earlier this year, snapping city rival Augustana's streak of nine consecutive conference titles then followed it with a third-place finish at the NCAA Central Region Championships, earning their fourth bid to the national meet. Pegged for a top-five finish in the finals coaches' poll, USF will earn their highest ranking in their seven years as a member of NCAA Division II as the final mark of the historic season.