Cross Country qualifies for National Championship after record race at regionals

Kyle Kelly, Sports Editor

When the men’s and women’s cross country teams traveled up to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the NCAA Regional Championships, the Blue Streaks knew that history could be rewritten. 

It may come as a surprise but the expectation was never to come away with a trophy or a bid to the National Championship. In fact, that wasn’t even the goal. However, they couldn’t be more happy with the end result.

For the first time in school history, the women’s cross country team are regional champions. Although they didn’t place first, the men’s third-place finish shattered a record as well. Both results achieved the next step in the process: a chance to capture a national championship.

“It was crazy and surreal. It was kind of a surprise because we didn’t talk about it going in,” head coach Kyle Basista said in an exclusive interview with The Carroll News. “It is huge. I think as competitors, you want to be at the top. It means a lot this year because there has been so many times, so many years, that we’ve wanted it and we were so close.”

The JCU women edged out the rest of the competing field with a score of 83 points to win the regional meet at Calvin College. To make the taste of victory even sweeter, they beat conference foe Baldwin Wallace by one point. Most importantly, they punched their ticket to the NCAA National Championship. 

“The way it works for these meets, we are getting updates as the race is going on. We knew halfway through that we were winning as a team. I was sharing that and yelling that at a lot of them,” Basista described. “We pretty much just needed to hang on from that point on. We won by one point and over Baldwin Wallace. That was crazy and surreal.”

Although the men did not achieve gold, their bronze finish netted the same result — a chance to compete in Kentucky for a national title. 

The women have never competed in a national championship but have sent individuals to the race before. Among those accomplished runners is graduate assistant coach Erin Kiley. Having Kiley on the staff is a blessing, knowing the Blue and Gold can learn from experience.

“The National Championships is different than anything we do all year,” Kiley told The Carroll News, sitting across from Basista. “You definitely need to have perspective from someone that has been there. My purpose is to provide perspective. If I can help mitigate the mistakes because I have been there before, it’s mission accomplished.”

The Blue Streak men have been there before but not since 1977. Forty-two years ago the process was much different then anyway. Essentially any team that could afford the bid to compete had the chance to be represented. 

Basista, a Mount Union graduate, has been with the JCU program for over a year now. He knows that reaching the National Championship as an at-large is a tremendous accomplishment.

“This is my 11th year. Seeing the development after putting your blood, sweat and tears into it, I think it is hard to put into words where we are at. This is something that we’ve wanted for so long. The biggest thing for this whole weekend is a sense of relief. It is a huge weight off our shoulders and monkey off your back.

“It’s like, finally,” Basista added with body language that showed relief. “It’s huge. It’s been a culmination of all the runners throughout the years. You learn so much about your failures compared to your success. That is a product of this team for sure.”

JCU Sports Information
The Women’s Cross Country team hold their Regional Championship banner at Calvin College.

As the calendar flipped from October to November, the women flipped the switch. It was a mid-season fiasco that aided the Blue and Gold in turning the corner. 

Through the first month of the season, the Blue and Gold had a sixth-place finish, and two seventh-place results — including their showing at the Pre-Nationals Invitational on Oct. 5. 

The Pre-Nationals Invitational was held at the same course, the E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, as this weekend’s national championship. The Blue Streaks have familiarity with the course, for better or worse — the Pre-National meet was discounted due to an outcome completely out of the teams’ hands.

There were multiple 5 kilometer women’s races going on throughout the day and JCU was competing in the final collegiate race of the day. At the 4 kilometer mark, the lead cart was supposed to lead them right. Instead, they went straight and off course. 

The mistake was realized eventually, but once they corrected it, all the leaders and everyone behind the leaders merged at different points and were running different distances. To make matters worse, they were even led the wrong way a second time.

The Blue Streaks were disqualified from the race. Despite the meet not counting, Basista and hit the ‘on’ switch. 

“We had to switch gears after that,” Basista said of the debacle in Louisville. “It put some pressure on us. It was interesting to see how they rose to the occasion with that position. From that point on, we got a little bit better and a little bit better.”

Once Oct. 19 hit, the Blue Streaks ran with the trail wind. The women finished third of 32 teams in the Inter-Regional Rumble and had all the momentum to rewrite the script. Then, as the leaves started to change, the Blue Streaks put the pen to paper and wrote champions. 

The Blue and Gold earned gold for the third time in school history in the conference, and their first Ohio Athletic Conference crown since the 2013 season. The first-ever conference championship was won in 1991. All three were won on Nov. 2.

“On the women’s side, honestly, there were probably a few more hurdles to cross there. We were so young in some spots,” Basista said. “At the conference championships, they gained a lot of confidence from that but at the same time, the excitement wasn’t what you would think from being in the conference championship, because they knew there were bigger and better things to accomplish this season.”

JCU Sports Information
Jamie Dailey races in a match.

On the men’s side, they took an uncharacteristic approach to the season. Now, they are reaping the benefits. 

“One of the changes from the men’s side was taking a different approach. The guys didn’t race as much during their season — which was a little bit of a risk when you’re not putting yourself out in a competitive aspect as much.

“I think we were making up for that in training. They were working really hard. We wanted to be prepared for the end of the season, and I felt the best way to do that was by being the most fit and doing that in training.”

The men actually finished better in their mid-season races than the women. The Blue Streaks placed second at the Knight Invite, fifth at the All-Ohio Championships and sixth at Pre-Nationals. Their worst result of the season, a ninth-place finish at the Inter-Regional Rumble, was actually not too shabby, considering the Blue Streaks rested their top seven runners.

At the OAC Championships, the Blue and Gold weren’t as fortunate as the women. The men had to knock the rust off and as a result placed second. The mighty Otterbein Cardinals successfully defended their OAC championship with their first place finish. 

Although the men did not raise a trophy, the Blue Streaks had plenty of positives to take away from the OAC Championship meet. JCU was the only team to place four runners in the top ten. Additionally, the 44 points scored was the best score by the men at the OAC championship race. 

Coach Basista credits the relationships the men have built with each other throughout the last five months as the outcome.

“This is the closest, tight-knit group that I’ve ever seen. I haven’t had to coach a whole lot. You know that its a special group when the coach doesn’t have to continually reiterate and say the same things over and over again.”

JCU Sports Information
The women’s cross country team celebrates the OAC Championship

Following a grind of a season, the best accomplishment yet came this past weekend at Calvin College’s Gainey Athletic Complex for the regional championship.

For the women, they had four runners place in the top 25 of 233 total competitors. Sophomore Cameron Bujaucius had the best finish, placing third with a time of 21:14.25. Freshman Sydney Janko crossed the line ninth, junior Morgan Kelley finished 16th and senior Jamie Amoroso 25th. 

On the men’s side, three players crossed the finish line within the top 11. Freshman Alex Phillip had the best finish (5th, 24:12) for JCU and among the 76 first-year competitors in the race. Junior Jamie Dailey and sophomore Ian Pierson placed seventh and 11th. 

“The course was pretty muddy and frozen and snow. It started to thaw out and get warmer for the girls’ race. It was probably tougher conditions,” said Basista. “We talked about it going in. We embraced it. We were ready for any kind of challenges that the course was going to give them. We talked about getting out early and putting ourselves in a good position.”

Phillip, Dailey, Pierson and sophomore Pat White all received All-Region accolades. The quartet of Bujaucius, Jenko, Kelley and Amoroso also earned All-Region honors, as did sophomore Rory Vigrass and senior Lyla Graham. 

In between the regional meet, the Blue Streaks have just one week to prepare for the race — a rarity in cross country. What may look like a disadvantage is actually an advantage for the JCU runners. 

“They have the adrenaline, that excitement and that high, coming off of the weekend, that won’t be gone yet when they get to Nationals,” said Kiley. “Whereas if it was two weeks from now, they would have to get excited again.”

Rest assured, the John Carroll cross country program is plenty excited to compete in this weekend’s race. The Blue Streaks have their sights on rewriting history once again. An NCAA Championship is always the ultimate end goal for any sports team, and now they have a chance to accomplish it.

“It is cool to see that every single time that we have tried and failed and learned from all of those experiences has gotten us to where we are now,” Kiley said. “It is the effort of everyone that came before us, where we are now. It feels like a Blue Streak accomplishment and a cross country community accomplishment.”

The NCAA Division III Championships are on Saturday, Nov. 23, at the E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Kentucky. 

“We are going in with no expectations,” said Basista. “We want to enjoy the experience.  If we can ride that adrenaline and momentum into the National Championship … have fun with it. We may surprise ourselves.”