Runners seize regional titles, eye NCAA nationals

Members of the mens cross country team run together as a pack en route to their first cross country regional championship. The Lions will host the NCAA Division II National Championships next week.

Courtesy of Karen Rutledge

Members of the men’s cross country team run together as a pack en route to their first cross country regional championship. The Lions will host the NCAA Division II National Championships next week.

Lion runners made history Nov. 3 as the Missouri Southern men’s and women’s cross country teams won regionals for the first time in the University’s history.

“Saturday was a big day for Southern’s cross country program. For the men and women to win together and win big, it’s a big deal,” said Patty Vavra, women’s cross country coach. “The teams play off of each other’s success.”

Sophomore Kimi Shank was the first Lion across the finish line finishing 4th overall with a time of 21:28. Shank was followed by junior Kara Eckard and sophomore Ashley Bunch who finished in the top 10 placing seventh and eighth. Sophomore Courtney Waltbillig finished 14th, while junior Kari Fritchie finished 34th. Freshman Taylor Whitacre was 43rd and sophomore Victoria Kline finished 58th.

“We have worked so hard all season and it paid off. We plan on doing it even better in two weeks,” Bunch said.

The women’s team beat out schools such as Abilene Christian, Pittsburg State, Truman State, and Dallas Baptist.

After beating some of the nation’s top schools, freshman Olga Bulgurova and Eckard decided to dump a cooler of water on the coaches, only with a different outcome than they expected.

“It was funny. They missed and soaked Ashley (Bunch) and Taylor (Whitacre) instead,” Shank said.

Vavra was also recently named MIAA Women’s Coach of the Year, an honor which she says is “shared.” This is Vavra’s fourth time to win this honor. Two of the four times were for indoor track while the other two were for cross country.

“I couldn’t do this without Assistant Coach Jamie Burnham,” Vavra said. “We get honors because of athletes, it reflects what they do.”

The men’s team beat out nationally ranked Abilene Christian to win its first regional championship.

“We beat out the No. 1 team in the nation and that always feels good,” said Tom Rutledge, men’s cross country coach.

Abilene Christian was the eight-time defending regional champions and the 2006 national champions.

“Anytime you beat the No. 1 team in the nation there is reason to celebrate, but we still have our biggest goal ahead of us,” said senior Dustin Miller. “We want to be one of the top four teams in the nation.”

Junior Dustin Dixon led the Lions on the 10k course with a time of 31:02. Dixon placed 3rd overall and was followed by sophomores Isaac Garcia, Brennan Benkert, and Miller who placed 8th, 11th, and 13th respectively. Senior Kyle Davis finished 40th, while senior Derek Wright was 73rd.

“It is really exciting to be part of the team that won the first regional title for Southern,” Benkert said.

Rutledge said the pressure is “still on and his team will keep working.”

“They get up every morning at 6:30 and they run their 12 miles,” Rutledge said. “I don’t have boys. I have men.”

Rutledge was also named MIAA cross country Coach of the Year. This is his fourth Coach of the Year honor for cross country, winning it once for indoor/outdoor track as well.

“It’s nice to be nominated and elected. It is good for the team,” Rutledge said.”It’s because of the team that I get those honors. I try to stay humble and give them all the credit.”

Nationals will be held Nov. 17 on Southern’s cross country course. According to senior Ryan Arthur, “It’s our time to show how hard we’ve been working.”