(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)
BILLINGS – Four miles into the Yellowjacket/Battlin’ Bears XC Open, Montana State University Billings junior Ase Ackerman told himself he wouldn’t let the two leaders of the race go. Sitting in third place with a couple seconds to make up, he tried maintaining his pace along the far side of Amend Park’s flat, grassy course.
Then MSUB assistant cross country coach Kevin Bjerke’s voice cut through the sound of his breathing and his feet hitting the grass:
“You can go sub-25, but you’ve really gotta fight for it.”
Over the course of the next mile, Ackerman fought along the backstretch of Amend Park, found something within himself to keep pushing the near-5-minute-mile pace he kept throughout the race, then approached the final turn going into the finish. By this point it was him and the clock.
“I knew that I was giving it all I got,” Ackerman said. “When I came around the turn, I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I knew I was running something fast. I was just telling myself to give it all I got.”
Ackerman barreled down the home stretch and crossed the finish line in 25:10.3, which was not only a massive personal-best, but also the fifth-fastest 8K time in MSUB men’s cross country history. His personal best was one of 10 new PRs set by both MSUB’s men’s and women’s cross country teams on Friday morning.
“We told everyone that this was a good opportunity to really test ourselves – perfect weather, great competition, flat course – so our goal was to get out hard,” Bjerke said. “And I think everyone who was healthy accomplished that.”
All six men set new, 8-kilometer personal bests. Carson Jessop finished after Ackerman, emerging late from a pack he ran with throughout the race and breaking the 26-minute barrier with a 25:29.6. Then, in his first 8K in nearly two years and competing in his second race of the season, Logan Straus finished in 13th at 26:00.3. From there, the main pack of the race stormed through the finish line, including Bryant Edgerton, who shaved two minutes off his 8K PR to finish in 22nd with a 26:24.6.
“I think this is the first time we’ve seen the real Logan,” Bjerke said. “And today’s race is still probably a few steps back from where he’s going to be. The fact that he hit this race as well as he did, he’s just building off of everything now. And Bryant really shined as well. It’s great to see that we can have that strong of a top core that close together and that far up in the race.”
As for the women, junior Kailee Stoppel led the way for the third-straight meet, placing in sixth with a 18:50.60 – a new lifetime best in the 5K in both cross country and track. Stoppel took out the race with the leaders, hung with the front pack and earned her third-consecutive top 10 finish of the season.
“Considering the little hiccup she had earlier this week with an injury flareup, this was a great comeback race for Kailee,” Bjerke said. “She’ll be fine come GNACs, and the good thing is, she felt healthy throughout this race.”
Yet the next few runners on the women’s side had encouraging results, especially with the conference meet around the bend. In her second collegiate race, Kendra Woods was MSUB’s second finisher on the women’s side; she and teammate Ally Whitmer pushed each other throughout the race, finished seven seconds apart and nearly broke the 20-minute mark.
“I’m glad they could feed off of each other,” Bjerke said of Woods and Whitmer. “They’re really important second and third runners for us, so it’s good to see them continue to work together and hopefully move up closer to Kailee at GNACs.”
Rounding out the rest of MSUB’s women’s team finishers, the duo of Sierra Durbin and Kit Wiersema finished back-to-back in 41st and 42nd, respectively. Durbin battled down the stretch with a Rocky Mountain College runner to finish with a new 5K PR of 21:14.3. Wiersema used a big finish to outkick a runner from Dickinson State to set a 10-second PR with a 21:23.3.
With all the new personal bests set at its home course, the MSUB cross country program is, as a whole, optimistic for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Cross Country Championships in two weeks. Competition will be over for them until then, but several more weeks of training and finalizing the postseason roster are around the corner.
“The biggest thing we’re looking for is trying to carry this momentum that we built today into a 6K, and basically run these same paces but extend it out another kilometer,” Bjerke said of the women’s team, in particular. “That would be the ultimate goal. It’s a very competitive conference and environment, so I think those things lend itself to fast times.”