The RMAC 'A' Team: Aaron Braun and Alexis Skarda will give opponents plenty of reason to be concerned about the Adams State and Mesa State teams, respectively, this fall. Photos courtesy of
There are a few things you can count on in life. One of those things is that schools from Colorado will always be in the mix for the NCAA Division II national championship in cross country. Last year, five of the top 20 men's teams at nationals hailed from Colorado. And it could happen again this year.
Adams State and Western State are perennial contenders. And, recently, Mines and Metro State have been making some noise at the national level as well, particularly on the men's side.
Before I launch into a preview of the cross country season for the Division II programs in the state, however, I must issue a disclaimer. I'm much better informed about high school cross country in Colorado than collegiate cross country. I hope to improve on the latter, but it's not there right now. It doesn't help that college has a little phenomenon called the redshirt year and, for transparent reasons, it's often difficult to forecast which teams will be using that option for which athletes. So, please bear with me a little through my learning curve.
And, in case you were wondering, yes, this is an indicator that Colorado Track XC is taking on coverage of collegiate cross country on a trial basis this fall. It should be fun. I hope to make a few new friends and learn a whole lot of new things in the process.
Adams State won the Division II national title under adverse conditions in Slippery Rock, PA, last fall. It wasn't just a rock that was slippery.
Adams State defeated second-place Western State by 21 points, prevailing over their closest rivlas at four of the five scoring positions. For good measure, the Grizzlies' 6th and 7th runners buried their counterparts from Gunnison.
The national title completed a sweep of the conference, regional, and national meets for Adams State. It was a convincing championship season.
And, while both teams return the lion's share of their national teams, it appears that Adams State has a slight upper hand going into the season. Just don't suggest that too loudly to Jen Michel and her crew.
Once again, this fall shapes up as another great series of battles between Adams State and Western State. The Grizzlies should be led by seniors Aaron Braun (Rocky Mountain) and Ryan McNiff. The Mountaineers barely have a senior in their lineup but are deep in juniors--men like Loren Ahonen, Tyler Rasmussen (Sterling), and Tyler Pennel (Golden)--and are very talented. And the juniors bring crucial national championship experience to the table.
The Mountaineers and Grizzlies will clash in Alamosa on September 5 and again in Gunnison on September 26. While no meeting between these two rivals is meaningless, don't look for either team to show too much of their hand in these early-season meets. Probably not until the RMAC meet on October 24 will we have a clear picture of whose season is tracking along the more favorable trajectory. Even then, both programs carry aspirations that extend far beyond the conference title.
Eight places back of Adams State at the national championships was Colorado School of Mines. Art Siemers' crew loses none of their top four finishers from the national meet, but will have to replace a few seniors in the remainder of their lineup. Even so, it's a remarkably deep roster for the Orediggers. Mines is led by junior Ben Zywicki (Rampart). Anything higher than a third-place conference finish for Mines, however, would be a monumental accomplishment. That's just how life is in the RMAC.
Metro State was just behind Mines at both the regional and national meets last fall. Metro, however, probably lost more than any other team in the conference. Not only did three of the team's top runners, led by Todd Tolentino, use up their eligibility, but head coach Pete Julian departed as well. Interim coach Sean Nesbitt has the challenge of putting the remaining pieces back together into a contender. It will be intriguing to watch who bubbles to the top to lead the charge for the Roadrunners.
If Metro has a contender for the distinction of incurring the most significant losses to the team, that contender would be UCCS. Coach Mark Misch took last fall's collection of nobodies and together they scratched and clawed their way to stunning 17th at the national championship. Unfortunately, four of those "nobodies" used up their eligibility in the program. It is nearly a given that a couple of freshmen will have to step up and contribute for UCCS this fall. That's a tough place to be in a conference as top-heavy as the RMAC.
On a personal note, one or two of my former runners may find himself in a contributing role for the Mountain Lions this fall. That generates a strong rooting interest in the team's fortunes for me, but I'll try to keep that fact from clouding my objectivity.
Despite their losses, Metro and UCCS have the tools to retain their fourth and fifth places in the conference standings.
Elsewhere across the state, Regis and Colorado Christian both may struggle to field complete teams. That's a sign of danger in any conference but nowhere more so than in the RMAC. Fort Lewis should have a full team, but will have to make major strides to improve much on their 14th-place finish at regionals and 8th-place finish in the conference.
Individually, Adams State senior Aaron Braun and Western state senior Iain Donnan should be battling for the honor of top DII runner in the state, RMAC, and region. With Scott Bauhs out of the picture, both could be in contention for the national title as well. Stay tuned as that particular story develops.
The rest of the RMAC gets no reprieve from the Adams/Western juggernauts on the women's side of the ledger. Even at the national level, there is no place to hide; Adams and Western went 1-3 at last year's national championships.
So far as the competition between the two schools goes, the edge going into the season for Adams is a little bigger on the women's side than on the men's. Although Adams loses Heather Wood and Lavenna Mullenbach from last year's national championship roster, Western also takes a key hit and Adams' #7 runner finished ahead of Western's #5. That same result was mirrored in the regional championship race.
Both teams have a group of three key returners. For Adams it is J. J. Lende, Janette Cary (Centauri) and Sofia Monroe (Pueblo Centennial). For Western, it is Julianne Payton (Woodland Park), Hillory Davis (Air Academy), and Sarah Lyle (Smoky Hill). The most compelling reason for the Mountaineers to hope and believe they can topple the Grizzlies is the greater depth within Western's program.
If Sean Nesbitt can keep the rhythm going at Metro state, the Roadrunners should be a solid entry in this year's race as well. Former Holy Family standout Danielle Kehoe, who sandwiched a couple years' worth of triathlons between her high school and college cross country careers, leads the pack for Metro.
Another intriguing entry in the RMAC race will be UCCS. UCCS lost Shannon Payne to graduation, and that loss is huge. Payne was beaten at nationals only by Jessica Pixler and Neely Spence. That put Payne in some seriously select company. While Mark Misch won't be able to replace Payne directly, he can hope for some solid improvement throughout the rest of his lineup. A team appearance at nationals has to be on the list of objectives for the Mountain Lions, led by junior Alicia Del Pardo (Sierra), this fall.
Before UCCS makes a trip to nationals, though, they will have to deal with Mesa State. The Mavericks are led by one of last year's top freshmen in Alexis Skarda (Fairview). Skarda's 19th-place finish at nationals was bettered by only two other freshmen, one of whom was Neely Spence. With a high percentage of the key contributors from last year back in the lineup, the Mavericks, too, have to be aiming for a national berth.
Mines was only two places behind UCCS at the Central Region meet, but departures from the program to graduation and attrition have hit the Orediggers, a bit of a thin team to begin with, hard. If senior Sydney Laws (Arvada West) can get some solid support from the many freshmen dotting the roster, however, the team from Golden could make some noise.
Further back are Fort Lewis, Regis, CSU-Pueblo, and Colorado Christian. Of these, Fort Lewis and CSU-Pueblo have the best chances at improving on their finishes from last year. CSU-Pueblo is still a program in its infancy and a few key contributions from incoming freshmen could make a world of difference. Colorado Christian is a program teetering on the edge of its existence as the Cougars have experienced difficulty fielding a complete team.
Top individual honors should come down to a contest between Alexis Skarda, J. J. Lende, and Julianne Payton. All three had the kind of seasons last year that indicate more good things are in the works.
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