The Bradley men’s and women’s cross country teams both had dominant outings at the conference championship in Cedar Falls, Iowa, last Saturday.
The men won their second straight Missouri Valley Conference Championship in a convincing fashion. The women finished as runner-ups, marking the fourth-straight year the team finished in the top two at the conference championship, after winning the title in 2014 and 2015 and finishing second in 2013.
The men claimed the title by scoring 24 points at the meet, finishing ahead of second-place Wichita State by 58 points. The 24 points are the fewest by a champion in 34 years – when Southern Illinois also scored 24 during the 1982 meet – and just one point shy of matching the best total in the last 59 championships.
“Going in, we knew we were the favorites, so we felt like there was a little bit of a target on our backs,” head coach Darren Gauson said. “The guys went out and executed like they have all year, and the results were very impressive.”
Junior Michael Ward and freshman Jake Hoffert finished second and third, respectively, for the best individual finishes by a Brave in 51 years.
“I was happy with my performance in terms of what I did for the team, but honestly, I was a little disappointed in myself coming in second,” Ward said. “I’m not entirely upset that I didn’t win the individual title. In a way, I’m kind of glad I didn’t because I don’t want to take any of the spotlight from the team. This race was all about running as one big unit and showing our depth and strength in numbers.”
A school-record five Braves earned All-Missouri Valley First Team honors for their performances Saturday. Along with Ward and Hoffert, seniors Caleb Beck band Patrick Campbell and junior Taylor Floyd Mews earned all-conference honors after placing in the top 10.
“Having five guys finish in the top eight is huge for us,” Gauson said. “If we’re going to achieve our main goal of qualifying for the NCAA National Championship, we’re going to need good depth, and this performance puts us one step closer to that.”
Ward posted a time of 24:38.4 in the 8K race, collecting All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team honors for the second-straight season after his fourth-place finish last year. Ward has had the top time by a Brave in each of the four meets he has run this season.
“Michael has been huge for us all year,” Gauson said. “He sets the tone at practice and has been our number one guy all season. He’s sort of the benchmark, so if we can put four guys close to him, we know we’re going to do really well. He’s such a great athlete and extremely strong academically; he truly allows our team to be as good as they are.”
Hoffert’s third-place finish in a time of 24:40.4 is the best in school history for a freshman, a record that stood for 36 years. In addition to his all-conference accolades, Hoffert was named the Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year, becoming the third Brave in the last four seasons to collect the award – Campbell in 2013 and Ward in 2014.
The victory on Saturday marked the second MVC Championship in the program’s history. Gauson was awarded Missouri Valley Coach of the Year on the men’s side for the second-straight year, which is his third Coach of the Year award in his two years at Bradley.
“We have a lot of really good coaches in our conference, so winning three out of four over the last two years has been a really big honor, and it’s a testament to our kids and the staff and administration we have here,” Gauson said.
As for the women’s team, Northern Iowa defeated Bradley by a margin of 12 points. Wichita State, Indiana State and Illinois State rounded out the top five at the championship.
With seven of the eight members of last year’s championship team having graduated, Gauson suspected this may be a rebuilding year for the team.
“This time last year when we won, I thought were going to be fifth or sixth in the conference next season because we’re going to have to build a whole new team; so while I’m disappointed we didn’t win, second is still a pretty good finish considering our circumstances,” Gauson said.
Because the team losing so many members from graduates as well as injuries, Gauson was looking for someone to step up. That is exactly what junior Hannah Witczak did.
Witczak was named to the All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team after a fifth-place finish at conference. Witczak ran the 5K course in a time of 17:45.1, leading the Braves for the fourth time this season.
“Last year, Hannah was our number 14 on the team, but she worked her tail off over the summer and came back in and went from being our number 14 to our number one,” Gauson said. “This was her first time competing in a conference championship, and to come in and finish fifth is awesome, and I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished in the last 12 months.”
Freshman Erin Gallagher and sophomore Sara Piller received honorable mentions to the All-Conference team after an 11th-place and 14th-place finish, respectively.
Both the men and women will return to action Friday, Nov. 11, competing at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Iowa City, Iowa.
Gauson has a different set of expectations for each team going into regionals.
“On the woman’s side, we want to finish inside the top-10 and don’t want to fall off too much,” Gauson said. “We can use a good finish as as a momentum boost for next year since we have everyone returning. As for the men, this is what we have been working toward all year. This is a huge meet for us, and we’d like to finish in the top three or four and give ourselves a shot at qualifying for the NCAA Championship for the first time in school history.”