The Milligan College men’s cross country team will make its third trip in the last four years while the No. 15 women will make their 16th straight trip when the Buffaloes compete at the 2018 NAIA Cross Country National Championships Friday, Nov. 16, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The 39th annual women’s 5K race is set to begin at 11:30 a.m. ET, followed by the 63rd annual men’s 8K race at 12:30 p.m. The event, hosted by Mount Mercy University, will take place at Seminole Valley Cross Country Course.

Despite a season marked by uncharacteristic illness and injury, Head Coach Chris Layne says his teams are ready.

“Physically I think both teams can take another step, and that’s our main goal,” he says. “I believe we do have momentum, and that stems from both squads being excited with the opportunity to compete in the national meet.”

HISTORY AT NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
With 16 straight trips to the NAIA meet for the women and three trips in the last four years for the men, the Buffs have plenty of experience at the NAIA’s highest stage. Last season, the women made a big move, jumping from No. 12 heading into the meet to finishing seventh nationally. From that group, Erica Stone (105th) and Hannah Bell (176th) are back from 2017, and Stone (270th) also is back from 2016. Plus, Milligan has an outstanding frontrunner in NCAA Division I transfer Jacquelyn Crow, along with a wealth of talent in its freshman class.

“On the women’s side, we have folks that have been there before,” Layne says. “Jacquelyn (Crow) has seen the sport on the biggest stage, and both Erica (Stone) and Hannah (Bell) were at nationals last year. Our freshmen are a group of smart, driven young ladies so I think they’re going to be able to keep all of this in context, and they’ll feed off the older women on the team.”

Milligan’s men will have runners from two of the last three NAIA championships competing this weekend. Although Nathan Baker ran to a 34th-place finish in 2017, injury has the indoor track & field 3000-meter national champion sidelined for the national event. Instead, the Buffs will look to Mitch Bronstetter (127th in 2017), Sam Wehner (186th in 2017) and Eric Shull (271st in 2016) as returners from previous national championships.

Additionally, the Buffs will have Alex Mortimer, an NCAA Division I transfer from University of Kentucky, who has led Milligan in all four meets he has run this season.

“On the men’s side, we do have experience on our side from those that should really impact us up front,” Layne says. “Alex comes from the Division I level, and Mitch, Sam, Eric and Seth (Nichol) all know how to operate in an environment like this, which I think means a lot when you get on the national stage.”

The last time Milligan competed at the NAIA Cross Country National Championships, the women placed seventh (2017). The men placed 24th (2016).

SEASON WRAP
Crow and Mortimer have led the women and men, respectively, in the last four races. This includes both running season bests at the Appalachian Athletic Conference Championships back on Nov. 3. Crow ran an 18:16 5K while Mortimer ran a 26:01 8K to lead Milligan to runner-up finishes at the conference meet.

Freshman Gabrielle Mardis won the opening race of the season on the women’s side, taking Tusculum University’s Zaxby’s Open by 35 seconds before garnering the AAC runner of the week nod for her effort. Mardis is one of four freshman women who will compete for Milligan this weekend, joining Bekah Owen (19:04), Avery DeWolf (19:06) and Kelsey Mowrey (19:22). All four ran personal bests at the AAC meet, and all four made the AAC all-freshman team.

Making the all-freshman team on the men’s side were Ethan Pfister and Samir Koko, who will look to strengthen the back end of the lineup.

“When the season started we felt confident we had two of our strongest rosters to date, but this has been one of those years where we’ve seen uncharacteristic illnesses and a few injuries that just happened at the wrong time,” Layne says. “With that being said, to still have two teams at the national championships feels good, and I think that has a lot to do with the depth we’ve developed.”