Though the cross country team hosted the Bradley Invitational last Friday, the weekend’s most important race happened nearly 200 miles away in Terre Haute, Indiana. It was at Indiana State’s course where the Braves top-six male runners competed in the Pre-National meet.
Bradley may have arrived at Pre-Nationals quiet on the national radar, considering they finished 26th last year, but after an eighth place finish, the Braves won’t be hiding much longer.
“We beat a number of nationally ranked teams, and [now] we’re receiving votes on the national level,” head coach Darren Gauson said. “We’re a top-34 team in the nation. I think that cat’s out of the bag now. We’re no longer flying under the radar at Bradley. People know how good we are after two big time performances.”
Bradley was paced by junior Michael Ward, who finished 16th overall in 24:21.6, followed by redshirt freshman Jake Hoffert in 42nd, senior Patrick Campbell in 46th, senior Caleb Beck in 91st and junior Taylor Floyd Mews in 116th. Together, the Braves scored a 314 to finish ahead of nationally ranked Portland and Eastern Kentucky.
“We ran very well at Notre Dame, beating some nationally-ranked teams, ” Gauson said. “So after that, we [said], ‘We’re already in a good place’ … To finish eighth kind of exceeded our expectations considering the training going into the meet.”
Gauson said because of the great meet at Notre Dame, the team decided to reel back the training to begin preparing for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) and Regional championships. The result, as Gauson said, was a bit surprising and exciting.
Ward once again led the way for Bradley, and Gauson said the junior is probably well on his way to being an All-American.
“That was a huge run for him,” Gauson said. “He beat some All-American guys. To finish 16th in that meet, where the national championships will be held in five weeks, is outstanding. It was a breakthrough performance for him.”
While Gauson said he thought Beck and Floyd Mews ran a little slower than usual, he did not see that as a problem. In fact, he saw that as another positive.
“I think when everyone fires on all cylinders, we’re going to have a huge performance,” Gauson said. “Our confidence level can’t be higher at this point.”
The Braves only took six runners to Pre-Nationals, while the remainder of the men’s team and the women’s team stayed in Peoria for the Bradley Classic. The goal for the men was to choose the final two runners who will compete in the MVC and regional championships, and Gauson found his final two in juniors Nyle Clinton and Haran Dunderdale.
“We had a lot of redshirt guys and girls on the fringes run,” Gauson said. “It was still a good meet because guys like Patrick [Campbell] and Caleb [Beck] graduate, so we need the next group of guys to come forward in the next year or two to fill those gaps.”
The women’s goal was much different, as they kept their top runners in Peoria; the team wanted to win the Classic. Unfortunately for the Braves, they came up short in fourth place behind another MVC opponent, Northern Iowa.
“To lose to Northern Iowa stung a little bit,” Gauson said. “I think some of our younger girls stepped up. We finished fourth ahead of Illinois, and we moved up in the rankings. The only disappointment was losing to Northern Iowa. We just need to refocus and work to retain our championship.”
The Braves suffered another loss over the weekend as senior Lauren Cunningham, who had been the Braves’ third runner, will be sidelined for the remainder of the season with a calf injury.
Despite the setback, Gauson said he has confidence that the women can repeat as conference champions. The task, however, will be quite difficult.
“We just need consistency, health, good positivity and that belief,” Gauson said. “We have to act like it’s ours. People are going to have to take it from us … I still think we have a really good shot to win. In terms of attitude and culture, I think our group is better than any other.”