DENVER — Going into Saturday’s South Central Region Championships, the Colorado School of Mines men’s cross country team was focused simply on running a solid race with one eye already on the NCAA Division II Championships.
There was certainly more pressure facing the women’s squad. Qualifying for nationals has become a hurdle in recent years given that CSM hadn’t made it as a team since 2005.
So Saturday’s fourth-place finish at Willis Case Golf Course was certainly a reason to celebrate. Both the Mines men and women will now head to Joplin, Mo., on Nov. 17 for the national championships.
“It’s really exciting for our whole team. That’s been our goal since the end of last year when we just missed out on making it as a team,” said Mines sophomore Chloe Gustafson, who led the women with a time of 22 minutes, 49 seconds, good for 16th place on the 6K course. “We’ve been pretty set on making it this year.”
Adams State captured both the men’s and women’s regional titles. Kevin Batt took first place on the men’s side and Alicia Nelson won the women’s race for the Grizzlies, and Western State was second in both team races.
Mines finished third on the men’s side, with sophomore Phil Schneider (32:37) placing eighth on the 10K course and teammate Derek Alcorn finishing just behind him at 32:38.
Frank Socha was 17th, Andrew Epperson 20th and Adam Bodnar 21st.
“Our focus was really on nationals. Today we wanted to be smart, qualify and still look like a good team,” said Schneider, who placed second at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championships on Oct. 20. “That’s what we did. We weren’t trying to go all out … our season is in two weeks, not today.”
Senior Sean Gildea, who won the CSU Open and the Woody Greeno/Nebraska Invitational earlier this fall, didn’t compete Saturday. Mines coach Chris Siemers referred to the move as a strategic one.
Gildea, who will compete at nationals, said he was simply happy to cheer his teammates on, adding that he believes the best is yet to come for the squad.
“We believe we can do anything. I think we have yet to show all of our cards,” Gildea said. “It will be really fun to see if everyone can break out at nationals.”
Schneider and Alcorn stuck together throughout Saturday’s race, with the rest of the team finishing soon after.
“Phil was always a few steps ahead of me, encouraging me, pulling me along,” Alcorn said. “I really like running with our guys. We’re all great motivators for each other and running together definitely helps.”
With the Orediggers returning the bulk of their men’s lineup from a squad that placed fifth at nationals a year ago, there was definitely an air of excitement coming into the 2012 season. A string of strong performances has only added to that, and Mines is ready to show it can be a contender.
“We’re looking at going for a national title. There’s no doubt there,” Schneider said. “That’s been our goal all season. We’re tired of it being Western and Adams, Chico and Grand Valley.
“We’re here. We’re here to win too, not just maybe beat one team every once in a while.”
Gustafson was the only Mines women’s runner to qualify for nationals a year ago, placing 74th as a freshman. A pulled muscle in her abdominals during the conference championships last month led to a 39th-place finish, but Gustafson was determined to get the best of Willis Case, the site of the 2011 RMAC Championships.
“It definitely helped knowing what the course is like. For me, I didn’t have the best race at RMACs last year either, so I definitely wanted to take back the course,” she said. “I wanted to have good memories on that course for once, so it was kind of a little vengeance for me.”
Teammates Hannah Cooling, Marie Patton and Hannah Schuster finished in spots 27-29, with Kirsten Farquhar just behind in 32nd.
Chris Siemers is in his first season of running the program after taking over for longtime coach Art Siemers, who resigned last summer to take the head cross country job at Colorado State. Chris was an assistant at Mines for two seasons, and Gustafson said his presence, along with that of assistant Paige Higgins, has been a welcome one.
“They’re really good about making our training really personalized,” she said. “It’s been a really good transition.”