Jackson Steinmetz was eating dinner out of his green box in Schrock Plaza Mar. 30 when the notification he had been waiting for popped up on his phone: a Zoom invite from his coach, Rustin Nyce.

Steinmetz joined the other members of the men’s cross country team on the call and waited nervously for the verdict.

After a few minutes, Nyce’s face appeared on the screen. “I’m not going to be able to sleep until after Nationals,” the head coach for cross country and track and field announced.

The team had qualified for the Men’s Cross Country National Championship in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday. They had also achieved something no Goshen College athletic team had done before: qualify for Nationals two years in a row.

“It was a really good feeling,” Steinmetz said. “It was something we were kind of expecting of ourselves, we need[ed] to get back to Nationals because that’s who we are and who we want to be.”

But after a season of challenges and uncertainty, qualifying was far from guaranteed.

The Maple Leafs secured the last of 10 at-large bids available after the 25 automatic qualifiers (the top one or two teams from each conference) were selected.

According to Nyce, the team’s second-place finish at the Mustang National Preview meet two weeks ago played a critical role in making the cut.

Nyce coached the team that qualified for Nationals in fall 2019, and claims that he isn’t surprised the men made it again this year. The achievement shows that GC is a national-caliber team even when things don’t go their way.

During the 2020 season, the team dealt with multiple injuries; a bike accident that sidelined a top runner, Salvador Escamilla and special restrictions posed by COVID-19.

“There was always this uncertainty about what was going on,” Steinmetz said, looking back on the fall season. Because of contact tracing and COVID-19 precautions, “there were days we didn’t know if we were going to be racing until we were racing.”

The Maple Leafs are going into the championship ranked 27th, but Nyce’s goal is for them to place above that.

Steinmetz has a personal goal of breaking the 26-minute barrier in the 8-kilometer distance. The sophomore wrestled with an injury in the fall, but finished second on the team at the race two weeks ago.

Steinmetz didn’t make the Nationals team last year, so he is excited to have a spot as a scoring runner this year. The other six to compete will be Nelson Kemboi (first-year), Salvador Escamilla (senior), Liam Elias (junior), Manny Villanueva (first-year), Solomon Wiebe-Powell (junior) and Dan Kipchumba (junior). Jonah Hochstetler (junior) and Tanner Pinks (first-year) will travel along as alternates.

Steinmetz believes the team is in the best shape it’s been in all season.

“We want to go and beat teams and make it clear that we are competitive at the national level,” he said.