(MSUB Athletics photo)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – The conference championship season begins on Saturday as the Yellowjacket cross country team will compete in the first of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships in Bellingham, Wash., this weekend. MSUB will face the deepest field of the season highlighted by nationally ranked contenders in both the men’s and the women’s field. The race will be held at Lake Padden Park for the second consecutive season.

“We’ve seen runners of the quality that we will face at conference this season but I’m not sure that we’ve seen the density of talent that will be in the field in Bellingham,” head coach Jonathan Woehl said. “We have an extremely competitive conference and this meet will set us up well for regionals.”

The University of Alaska Anchorage is the defending champion in both divisions and were favored at the start of the season to repeat the sweep with their women’s team currently ranked 8th in the nation followed by the men who rank 17th. Simon Fraser has the highest nationally ranked squad among all GNAC schools with their No. 5 ranked women’s program. Western Oregon University’s men hold a No. 13 rank and Western Washington’s men rank 23rd in the nation.

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This will be the ‘Jackets first opportunity to face GNAC schools since last year’s conference meet in which the men finished fifth and the women placed 11th. The course features rolling hills set on the backdrop of Lake Padden where the women will complete a 6K and the men will follow with am 8K race.

“As a team, our goals are focused on what we can control and how we run individually and as a team. We are running in the same conditions and on the same course as everybody else, we just need to trust our preparation and run a good race,” Woehl added.

Jorey Egeland is the top returning finisher from last year’s conference championship after finishing in 18th as a junior. Egeland’s time of 25:59.00 was just over three seconds behind the Yellowjackets top time of 25:55.40 posted by Garrett Love. Tyus Mendoza finished the race in 41st last season in a time of 26:44.90. Ronald Venema (26:55.00) and Ivan Colmenero (27:38.60) will also get another chance at the course after finishing 53rd and 69th respectively in the field of 92 from last season.

“Jorey will be able to compete with that first group of runners.” Woehl said. “I’d like to see him work his way into the top-10 and see if he can get even higher with a good race. Tyus and Ron performed well here last season and I expect Ivan will improve on his performance. They’re all in great shape so we’re just looking for our freshmen to close the gap a little bit and we should have a strong showing.”

Sophomore Nikki Aiken will have the opportunity to lead the MSUB women’s squad again after finishing with the top time 24:56.50 as a freshman and placing 64th. Bailey Bomar finished third on the team as a junior as she completed the Lake Padden course in 25:28.70. Catrina Schuchard (26:30.30) and Sarah Beatty (27:36.80) will have the opportunity to improve their marks on the course as they compete in the conference meet for the second time as well.

“With Nikki’s Improvement this season I wouldn’t be surprised to see her in the top-25 for us,” Woehl said of the sophomore captain. “She has worked really hard to get herself to this point and if she puts together a strong race mentally we know she has the ability to be right up there.”

LAST TIME OUT: The ‘Jackets hosted the MSUB Yellowjacket Open as they welcomed Black Hills State, Rocky Mountain College, Central Wyoming College and Montana State University Northern to Dover Memorial Park. Black Hills won both divisions as the men ran a 4.2 mile course and the women completed a 2.9 mile race.

The Yellowjackets finished second in both races highlighted by Egeland capturing his first collegiate first-place finish in a cross country meet. The senior captain out-paced the field by over 11 seconds after running a near perfect race in his last meet in Billings. Mendoza finished fourth followed by Venema and Colmenero who came in eighth and ninth for MSUB.

In the women’s race, Aiken was the second collegiate finisher and third overall as she led the team across the line. Bomar earned a seventh-place finish followed by a trio of ‘Jackets as Schuchard, Wegener and Bridges place 10th, 11th and 12th.

“We did a great job of closing the gap between Bailey, who has consistently been one of our top runners, and the rest of our lineup,” Woehl said. “We saw Kelby, Catrina, Kateri and Sarah really improve and finish close together which is a great sign of us growing as a team and could be really valuable for placing at conference and regionals.”