(MSUB Athletics release)
BILLINGS – The Montana State University Billings cross country teams have much to look forward to in 2018, particularly since they will be host to the NCAA Division II West Region Championships for the third time in the last five years. Both the men’s and women’s squads will open their seasons this weekend in Rapid City, South Dakota, as they travel to compete in the Hardrocker Cross Country Classic. Jonathan Woehl is in his second season as head coach and Brandon Hammack also returns as assistant coach.
“I think the entire team is excited to start the season,” Woehl said. “We are more than a full week into practice now so I think they are understandably a little tired but they’re doing well with what I’m asking them to do. I felt the first week went better than expected. Both the men and women are starting to gel together and the team chemistry has been good, which helps everyone run better.”
Some of the top returning runners on the men’s team include senior Ivan Colmenero and junior Ronald Venema. Nikki Aiken, a junior, will lead the women’s team as captain again this fall. The men finished seventh at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships last year while the women placed 11th. Aiken was at the front of the women’s team, finishing 34th with a time of 23:28.00 but several other will look to challenge her this fall.
“I think the competitive spirit of everyone on the women’s team is going to be a big difference for us,” Woehl commented. “Nikki wants to be the top runner on the team, but so do several others. That healthy competition is going to bode well for everyone once we get some races in. It’s healthy competition that will push everyone to compete at a higher level. Everyone kind of has a chip on their shoulder with something to prove.”
One of those competitors is sophomore Ruth Chepsat. Chepsat received a redshirt last season but has prior experience competing for Gillette Community College. She was also named an All-American for both cross country and track and field as a freshman.
“With Nikki and Ruth both competing for top times all year, there is no reason why we can’t begin to make our way past some of the other teams in the GNAC,” Woehl said.
The Yellowjackets have a young women’s roster this fall, but several runners have cross country experience including freshman Rachel Hiner. Hiner redshirted last year but competed in track and field events. Sophomore Miranda Livingston competed in the Yellowjacket Invitational and placed 33rd with a time of 23:18.60 in the three mile race. Both Hiner and Livingston will be looking to continue their upward trajectory in races this fall.
The men’s team will need to replace Jorey Egeland at the top of their lineup this year after Egeland graduated last spring. Ronald Venema and Colmenero are strong candidates to fill the void and each improved their performances at the GNAC Championships in 2017. Venema placed 50th with a time of 27:03.07 and Colmenero finished two spots behind him with a time of 27:05.58.
“Ivan has done really well with putting in a lot of miles,” said Woehl. “His time trial last week went great. He ended up running away with it and all the other guys were within about 10 seconds of one another and that is what we wanted. It’s advantageous to have one person up front and everyone else kind of bunched together behind.
Mark Hovland is another senior that figures to be a contributing runner this season. Hovland redshirted in 2017-18 but ran indoor and outdoor track meets. In 2016-17, Hovland was a top five finisher for MSUB in every cross country event, including three top-15 results. His return to the lineup will be a big boost to the depth on the roster.
“Mark has never been able to go through a full cross country season free of injuries but he did the time trial this year and I was happy with the result. We’d like to see him as a leader of the pack that finished behind Ivan in practice.”
MSUB women’s cross country features a young team including freshmen Sierra Durban, Rachel Hiner, Beti Lombardi, Kailee Stoppel, and Maddy Terwilliger. Nikki Aiken is the only upper classman on the roster so the newcomers will be expected to contribute to the team’s success right away.
The men are more experienced, but have two freshmen starting their careers at MSUB and both are already familiar to the program. Logan Straus is a Billings native and four-year letter winner at Billings West High School. As a senior, Straus was the Golden Bears’ leading scorer. Ase Ackerman is from Glendive, Montana and is a four year letter winner in high school as well. Ase’s older brother, Beau Ackerman, was an All-American for the Yellowjackets in the javelin at the 2017 NCAA D2 National Outdoor Championships.
“We have a couple freshmen who have performed well in the first week, but the longer distance will be an adjustment for them,” Woehl said of Ackerman and Straus. “In high school, they race a 5K but by the end of the year this year, they are going to be expected to run twice that far. I think they have the right upperclassmen to help them get ready to run the 10K so I am optimistic.”
In men’s cross country, last year’s conference champion Western Oregon received seven first place votes in the 2018 GNAC preseason cross country poll. They are projected to repeat as victors this season. Alaska Anchorage was second with two first place votes while Simon Fraser, Western Washington and Central Washington rounded out the rest of the top five.
Montana State Billings was tabbed for seventh ahead of Seattle Pacific and behind Northwest Nazarene, the same spot they finished in 2017.
“Looking at the top three runners that are coming back for each team, I think Western Washington has the best chance to finish first,” said Woehl. “They have both of their top two runners returning and a runner who redshirted that is more skilled than either of them.”
The margin between teams that placed fourth through seventh in the men’s conference championships was just 45 seconds. Coach Woehl is optimistic about the opportunity for the men’s team to improve their performance and make a jump in the standings.
“Last week we sat down and talked about our season goals with each of the teams. For the men, they know they are capable of beating last year’s seventh place finish in the conference. The ultimate goal would be to finish top five. I think we can sneak up on some teams ahead of us but we definitely have to keep putting in the work.”
Alaska Anchorage took 9 of 11 possible first place votes in the women’s preseason poll. This comes a year after the Seawolves finished fifth at the GNAC Championships. Simon Fraser, Western Washington, Seattle Pacific, and Central Washington were also in the top five. Montana State Billings was projected to finish 10th, ahead of Saint Martin’s and behind Concordia (Oregon) after placing 11th last season out of 11 schools.
“If Nikki and Ruth can consistently finish in the top 20 or 30, then we can have everyone continue to improve throughout the year and we can get ourselves in position to finish top 10 or better,” Woehl said.