With just one meet to go before the NAIA National Championships, the men’s and women’s cross country teams are peaking at just the right time.Last Saturday, both teams traveled to the NAIA Great Lakes Challenge meet, which took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With nearly 30 schools present, the Leafs rose to the challenge. The women’s team placed second out of 22 competitors and the men’s team took home fourth place out of 27 competitors.
To head coach Rustin Nyce, the achievements set the team up well for the coming Crossroads League Championships at Taylor University on Nov. 3.
Their continued success doesn’t surprise him.
“They believe in themselves and each other,” Nyce said. “Each one has done so well at working hard when that is appropriate and backing off when that’s needed.”
Currently the men’s team is nationally ranked no. 13 and the women’s team is ranked no. 25.
“I am thankful that the athletes have continued to put themselves in a position to be successful,” Nyce said. “They live their lives successfully, so this is not really a surprise, but it is good to have validation and recognition for their efforts.”
With just over a week until the Crossroads League Championships, Nyce is confident that both teams are exactly where they need to be.
“We have a plan that we implemented in May or June and it has worked well up to this point,” Nyce said. “I have 100% confidence that they are ready for the league meet and nationals.”
Their winning strategy isn’t the only new thing this season. Runners from both teams sported new jerseys over the weekend, striped with black and purple, showcasing “EK22” in bold, white letters on the back.
It was this time last year at the Great Lakes Challenge that both teams learned of the passing of their teammate, Ezra Kipruto Kogei. The jerseys feature Kogei’s initials and year that he passed and are just one way that the team has continued to keep his memory alive. Nyce feels that through these jerseys, the team is always able to have a piece of Ezra with them at all times.
“We are not running for him; rather, he is running with us,” Nyce said. “We don’t want to forget, but we can’t dwell on it either. He wouldn’t want that.”
In the year since Kogei’s passing, Nyce has been humbled by how the team has continued to grow around this experience while also taking care of each other in the process.
“They have a common experience and that bonds people together,” Nyce said. “This group has worked through tragedy together. They have experienced vulnerability, excitement, sadness and many other emotions mixed in.”
This, Nyce said, is one of the team’s greatest achievements of all.
“I am so proud of each one of these athletes,” Nyce said. “They experience success because they are intelligent, caring and whole people who treat each other with dignity and respect. It is humbling to be a small part of their experience and to watch them grow and thrive.”