Ward advances to NCAA Championships

A spectacular season for the Bradley men’s cross country team will conclude with only one runner representing the team. Junior Michael Ward clinched a berth in the NCAA Championships last Saturday after a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet.

Ward ran a personal-best time of 30:37.7 on the 10K course, shattering his old record by 15 seconds. Ward will be the first Bradley runner ever represented at the championship.

“At the start of the season, individually, one of [my] goals was to be in a spot where I could potentially make it individually should the team not make it,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, that was the case, but I’m really excited to finally get to the big dance and see how it goes.”

The rest of the team narrowly missed out on joining Ward at tomorrow’s championship. Bradley finished fifth at the regional meet with a score of 132, 12 points behind 13th-ranked Iowa State. If a few things had fallen their way across the country, head coach Darren Gauson said they might have earned an at-large bid. Alas, the Braves’ season as a team was over.

“We were just looking at the points and waiting on the NCAA’s announcement to see if we were going to be one of those at-large teams,” Gauson said. “We’re real proud of the guys and where we’ve come as a program.”

Gauson said both Ward and the program have come a long way from last season. He said the expectations for both have totally changed – last year, the team’s goal was to win the conference. Now, it’s to be known and compete on the national level, and Gauson said he believes they are at that level now.

“What I want for both teams is to win conference to be our primary goal and to reach the national championship on the men’s and women’s side,” Gauson said. “That’s the culture, and that’s what I expect … to be excellent and to be on the national level.”

Ward, who was a Midwest All-Region selection along with redshirt freshman Jake Hoffert and senior Patrick Campbell, will be running tomorrow in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the national championship meet.

The women were also represented at the Midwest regional meet, but their results weren’t quite what they wanted. Bradley finished 15th in the meet, capping off their season.

Gauson said the team wasn’t totally happy with the result at regionals, but there were a variety of issues leading up to the race. Senior Lauren Cunningham, sophomore Abby Jockisch and freshman Erin Gallagher all didn’t run due to injury while sophomore Sara Piller was battling food poisoning.

“Really, anything that could’ve gone badly for us did,” Gauson said. “[But], we were still able to finish top-15 in the region and [third] in the conference. Hopefully, that never happens again … We have to be better. I don’t want to say 15th isn’t acceptable, but that’s hard for me to take.”

Despite the adversity, junior Hannah Witczak capped off her excellent season by finishing 32nd at the regional meet in 21:05.2 on the 6K course. Witczak did not qualify for the national championship, but she provided plenty to be excited about for next season.

“For her to have the year she’s had, to finish 32nd is really just unbelievable,” Gauson said. “She was like our number 15 girl on our roster last year … she’s gone from 15 on our roster to 32nd in the Midwest regional, which is a really strong region; [it’s been a] really good year for her.”

Most of the top-women runners will return for next season, so Gauson said his expectations are high. For now, the women will have the indoor and outdoor track and field season to look forward to before trying to regain their Missouri Valley Conference title in 2017.