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Liberty Harriers Set for NCAA Southeast Regional Championships
The men's race is set for an 11 a.m. start, with the women's 6K race to follow at 12:15 p.m. The top two teams in each race and the top four individuals not included on one of the qualifying teams will guarantee themselves a slot at the NCAA Division I National Championships. The national meet is slated for Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Ind.
Head coach Brant Tolsma's men's squad enters the meet ranked No. 6 in the Southeast Region. The region is top-heavy with several nationally-ranked squads, headed by No. 9 Virginia, No. 11 N.C. State and No. 13 Louisville. Liberty will likely need to upset one of the three regional powers to advance to the national meet for the first time. The Flames' best-ever regional finish is their seventh-place finish at last season's meet.
"We're prepared and focused," noted Tolsma, in his 22nd year at Liberty. "However, we have struggled all season to put our fifth man close enough to our fourth runner to make us a team contender. Our front four are all running well right now."
To illustrate Tolsma's point, Josh McDougal (Peru, N.Y.), Jordan McDougal (R-Jr., Peru, N.Y.) and Jarvis Jelen (Sr., Sioux Falls, S.D.) swept the top three spots at the Big South Championships. Joshua Edmonds (So., Cooperstown, N.Y.) followed in sixth place, but 1:15 elapsed before freshman Cory Reed (Fr., Eldred, N.Y.), Liberty's No. 5 runner, finished the course.
Reed has looked good in practice the past two weeks, though, and the team will also be aided by the return of senior Kalib Wilkinson (Silverdale, Wash.) from injury. Wilkinson twice helped Air Force reach the national meet, before transferring to Liberty in the offseason.
The race for the individual championship promises to be a two-man race between Josh McDougal and Eastern Kentucky's Jacob Korir. McDougal won the regional championship as a freshman and sophomore, before Korir outran him for the 2006 crown. The two athletes squared off in the 8K white race at Pre-Nationals earlier this season, and McDougal outkicked Korir for a four-second victory.
The Lady Flames do not have an individual star like McDougal, but have parlayed pack running into a successful season. The squad's top five runners finished within 52 seconds of one another at the Big South Championships, allowing Liberty to claim its second-straight conference crown.
"We're really looking forward to Saturday," stated Tolsma. "It has been a good season, and we would like to end it on a good note."
Although Tolsma admitted it would take an "amazing day" for the Lady Flames, ranked No. 9 in the Southeast Region, to qualify for nationals, Liberty has a credible chance to post its highest-ever regional finish. No Liberty women's cross country team has ever placed better than ninth at the regional meet, and the 2006 Lady Flames came in 12th.
The Lady Flames' top five includes a mixture of youth and experience, with two seniors, a junior and two freshmen. Senior Piper Newby (Hayden Lake, Idaho) has been Liberty's No. 1 runner for the past two seasons and just missed All-Region distinction last season, after placing 29th. She is running well this year, and broke her own Liberty 6K record with a 21:22.5 at Pre-Nationals. On a flat course at Louisville, the school mark could be in danger again. Newby also owns the potential to qualify for the national meet individually, if the Lady Flames do not go as a team.
Big South Freshman of the Year Dacia Bushman (Castalia, Iowa) has been a pleasant surprise for the Lady Flames, posting consistently good performances during her rookie year. The sixth-place finisher at the Big South Championships, Bushman owns the Liberty 6K freshman record, a mark she set at Pre-Nationals with a 21:43.2.
Liberty's squad also features All-Big South runners Kati Albright (Fr., Wake Forest, N.C.) and Rebekah Ricksecker (Jr., Laurel, Del.). Although both figure to be mid-distance standouts on the track, they each came through for a top eight finish at the Big South Championships, at the 5K distance.
The NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championships will be held at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 19. The men's 10K race is scheduled for 12:08 p.m., with the women's 6K championship slated for 12:58 p.m.