Cross country team harbors high expectations for coming year

Mitchell Smith

Fans watching the Whitman cross country team’s first meet on Saturday, Sept. 6 were treated to blue sky, warm weather and very fast times. The Missionaries held their own and then some in their match-up with Eastern Oregon University of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA). The Whitman women beat EOU by a count of 25-40, and although the men fell 25-30, the meet set a high bar for both teams in the coming year.

Despite technically losing the race, the Whitman men appeared energized by the result, and for good reason. The winning time on the same 8-km course last year was 27:31.67. This year, each of the first six runners to cross the finish line beat that time, and three of these runners wore a Whitman singlet. This improvement in time, says Head Cross Country Running Coach Scott Shields, is a good indicator of things to come.

“We focus on getting better every day and every meet. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but this was a very positive meet, which as a coach is exactly what you want,” said Shields.

Eastern Oregon is an NAIA school, meaning some of their runners receive athletic scholarships. These scholarships have paid off for EOU. Last year’s 11th place finish at the NAIA National Championships leave them ranked 12th in the Preseason NAIA Top 25. Theoretically, any team from the NAIA should not struggle to defeat any DIII team. Whitman proved this theory wrong on Saturday morning.

“On paper, any NAIA school should kill us,” said Shields. “But if you’re right there with them like we were, it makes you think, ‘OK, we’re pretty good.'”

Shields is right. This version of the Missionaries is stronger than ever. If the season were to end today and all the top runners in the conference ran their best times, the Whitman men would finish second, a reasonable goal according to Shields. While hypothetical success feels good, senior captain Colin Domonoske stressed that the season is still young.

“We can’t get too caught up on these times in the beginning of the season. We’re ultimately running for the last race,” said Domonoske. “Conference and regionals are all that really matters in a cross country season.”

This distinction is not lost on some of the younger runners either. With only three seniors on the men’s team, much of the weight will fall on the shoulders of a talented group of underclassmen in the years to come. First-year Will Mullins is a part of this heralded crop of young runners who see promise for this year and for the future. Before these young runners can contribute, though, they have to adjust to the difficulties of running a longer race (8 km) than they did in high school (5 km).

“Come November, I’m hopefully going to get everything figured out and know what I want to run and know how to run [the longer distances],” said Mullins.

In the meantime, the future and the present look bright for the Whitman runners.

“I don’t see why we can’t gun for first. I’m going for number one,” said Domonoske. “We want to give Whitman a conference championship.”

The team will get a chance to test themselves against the best in the area this weekend at the Sundodger Invitational in Seattle.

Photo by Nikki Antenucci
Photo by Nikki Antenucci