For those who characterize cross country solely as an individual sport, Linfield head coach Travis Olson has a different message after watching his women’s and men’s teams finish a disappointing fourth and sixth, respectively, at the 2012 Northwest Conference Championships, a year removed from matching third-place showings.
“Cross country is a team effort,” Olson said when summing the Wildcats’ performance. “We had some individuals that did really well…but we had a few people that didn’t run as well as they wanted to or we expected them to.”
Specifically, Brooke Niemann and Joe Gladow assured Linfield was represented in the front of the pack with a pair of all-conference efforts at the league championships.
Niemann, a sophomore who was Linfield No. 8 (non-scoring) runner at the 2011 NWC Championships and did not compete at the West Regional as a freshman, finished as the Wildcats’ top runner in three of the final four meets this year, including 12th overall at the league championship and 20th at the regional meet.
“Once she hit that No. 1 spot, I think she felt comfortable there and felt like she should be there,” Olson said. “She’s certainly a competitor out there and likes to be in front.”
Siena Noe and Claire Hann were two other pleasant surprises on the women’s side. Noe missed all of last year but made an amazing return, finishing as Linfield’s No. 1 runner at the Lewis & Clark Invitational and consistently placing in the top four. Hann was sidelined with an illness for about a week toward the end of the season, but recovered her health in enough time to earn all-region honors by placing 23rd at the West Regional.
But the depth that the women’s team was set to take full advantage of took a serious hit when two-time all-conference and all-region performer Mimi Seeley was lost for the postseason due to nagging injuries that had also cost her most of the spring track season. The disappearance of Linfield’s returning No. 1 competitor from what had been a seven- or eight-deep roster posed a serious challenge to the Wildcats’ title hopes.
Making matters worse, the early season No. 1 runner – Hannah Greider – also struggled to remain healthy toward the end of the year.
Even so, Olson expected much more from his Wildcats.
“We were a little banged up in some key spots and some people just didn’t have very good races. That happens, and I understand that. But as a coach, it’s frustrating.
“We left a lot out on the course. At the beginning of the season, I thought we would be fighting for a conference title. So to finish where we did, I was disappointed.”
Over on the men’s side, Gladow was expected to be the team’s leader and didn’t disappoint. He paced the Wildcats in five of six meets, and posted career-best finishes at both the conference (seventh) and regional (21st) championships.
“Joe was the frontrunner from the get-go. I didn’t second-guess his willingness to be that No. 1 guy and leader on the team,” Olson said. “With as talented as a runner as he is, we just have to keep trying to figure out what will make him better.”
Veterans Calvin Howell and Jason Hight and freshman Frankie Moncada consistently held down the 2-4 spots in the Linfield lineup. Howell finished as the team’s No. 1 at Willamette’s Charles Bowles Invitational, and Hight came on strong at the end of the year, highlighted by a No. 2 finish at the West Regional. Moncada, meanwhile, had a great start to his career, taking command of the third position, before fading a bit toward the end of the year.
“I’m proud of everybody. I think that they worked hard,” Olson said. “But I want to continue to get better and win.”
After a less than ideal finish at the NWC Championships, both Wildcat squads responded positively at the NCAA Division III West Regional. With the women placing seventh (third among NWC teams) and the men 10th (fourth in the NWC), Linfield showed that if the stars align, especially in terms of health, the ‘Cats can be right in the thick of the title hunt.