Thursday morning a bus left from Union for a seven-hour trek to Joplin, Missouri carrying the women’s cross-country team to their second straight NCAA DII National Championship meet.
Thirty-two teams from schools all over the country will run the Tom Rutledge Cross Country course Saturday morning in hopes of placing well against the tough competition.
The top three teams from each region qualify to compete in the championship run. Union, top in the Gulf South Conference, placed third in the South Region Championships earlier this month, earning them an invitation to Nationals for the second consecutive year.
“Since this is our second time going, we now know what to expect,” said sophomore Janey Berends. “Last year was a great experience because it was our first time being there and it was really exciting, but this time we are better prepared and even more focused.”
The seven Union runners competing this weekend have had impressive seasons this fall. At the South Regional Championships, sophomores Abby and Janey Berends and Amy McKelvey earned NCAA DII All-Region Honors, meaning they placed in the top 25 in the race.
At the Gulf South Conference Championships Janey Berends finished in the top 10, earning first team all-conference honors. Runners Abby Berends, BethAnne Davis, Sarah Fickley and Lindsey Jakeman placed in the top 20 at the GSC Championships, earning second team all-conference honors.
According to Janey Berends, the team is looking forward to Saturday’s race, especially considering that it falls nearly three weeks earlier than the race last year, which was held in December.
“The team usually peaks in performance around this time, so I think it’s a great advantage to have the race fall earlier,” Berends said. “We also get to enjoy all of Thanksgiving break unlike last year, which is a plus.”
The National Championship is different from any of Union’s other races because they won’t be competing against their normal mix of teams. Since it is a countrywide race, with only three teams being from the South region, most of the faces will be new, meaning the competition is new.
Junior Lindsey Jakeman said the team plans to rely on their chemistry and past experience for this weekend. Each runner normally runs near another teammate to pace themselves and to see how they are standing in the race, which is vital considering the unique competition.
“I have faith that we will do well because our team is really close. I mean who else gets up at 5:15 a.m. to run together every morning,” Jakeman said. “We are competitive, but with other schools, not with each other. It’s hard to find a team like ours; we are really supportive and encouraging with each other, even when we race.”
The DII Championship starts at 9:55 a.m. CST and is going to be live streamed on NCAA.com.
“It’s going to be a great way to end our season,” Berends said. “We are just going to go hard and give it our all.”