Nov. 9, 2006
By Matt Crouch
CARBONDALE, Ill. - At the 2005 NCAA Midwest Regional Championship, Joe Byrne became the first Southern Illinois University cross country runner to advance to the NCAA Championship since 1998. Fast forward one year later to 2006 and find sophomore Mohamed Mohamed hoping to duplicate Byrne's accomplishment.
Since the completion of the Missouri Valley Conference Cross Country Championship on Oct. 28, the Salukis have been preparing for this weekend's regional championship in Minneapolis, Minn.
The meet will be one of nine regional meets going on all over the country. Other cites include Bowling Green, Ohio, Lock Haven, Penn., Albuquerque, N.M., Bronx, N.Y., Knoxville, Tenn., Waco, Texas, Louisville, Ky., and Portland, Ore.
There are two ways to qualify for the NCAA Championship, which will be held on Nov. 20 in Terre Haute, Ind. The first is to qualify as a team. The top two teams at each of the regional meets automatically qualify for the NCAA Championship. A selection committee will then review the third and fourth-place finishers in each region and make decisions based on a team's performance throughout the season to pick the remaining 13 teams.
Individuals can qualify for the NCAA Championship by finishing as one of the top four runners that is not already on a qualifying team. That is how SIU's Byrne qualified in 2005. Even though he finished 21st overall in the Midwest Regional, he placed fourth among runners not already qualified through their team.
"That's one of the goals that we would like to accomplish again," said SIU head coach Matt Sparks on sending someone to the NCAA Championship.
"This year, I think there will be three of four teams to get in from our region, so obviously we're hoping for a lot of teams to qualify to give Mohamed a better chance individually. Minnesota and Kansas on the men's side should be first and second. Oklahoma State and Iowa State are two teams that are on the bubble, trying to run well to earn some respect and some points to qualify as a team. And if those teams qualify, then Mohamed has a good chance. All we can affect is what Mohamed does. If he can finish in the top 15, then that will at least give him a chance to qualify individually."
Mohamed has had a standout season so far in 2006. Competing in four events, he has finished first on two occasions, runner-up once and fourth once. One of his victories was the MVC Individual Championship, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a Saluki since 1996.
As a team, SIU is currently ranked 10th in the Midwest Region but Sparks sees his team coming out a little better.
"From a team perspective, I think on the men's side we are a very young team so we would like to use this race as a springboard for ourselves to maybe finish top five next year and be a team that instead of talking about individual qualifying we can talk about team qualifying," said Sparks.
"So, we would like to finish top seven this year so that next year we can make a run at the top five and be considered one of the better 31 teams in the country and get a bid to go to the national meet."
For the women's team, Sparks hopes that the experience of his senior-dominated squad will shine and lead the Salukis to a national berth. The Salukis have been ranked in the top 10 in the region throughout most of the season. Currently ranked ninth, SIU has been ranked as high as sixth.
As a team, SIU's women have finished either first or second in all five events it has competed. While some freshmen have stepped up to lead the team along the way, the experienced quintet of Sarah Rinker, Brittani Christensen, Lindsay Wagner, Katie Birn and Cherylynn Schilling have provided consistency throughout the season.
Rinker finished 15th at regionals last year, following up a 24th-place finish in 2004. Christensen finished a step ahead of Rinker in 2004, placing 23rd in the meet.
"On the women's side, this is Sarah Rinker's last opportunity to run a college cross country meet unless the team qualifies for nationals. So, she is going after her third all-region performance. Brittani Christensen was all-region two years ago and Lindsay Wagner was 30th last year. So, all three of them have visions of getting another all-region certificate," said Sparks.
"If the three of them can perform up to those standards then I think we have a chance at being in the top five to seven and those are the teams that are thought to be the elite programs in the country and have a possibility of an at-large national bid. If we can have three people in the top 25 then we have a chance at doing something special. And we would like to do that with the senior girls going out, do something exciting in their last season of cross country competition."
According to Sparks, advancing to nationals would be a fitting tribute to the senior class. Once a doormat for other teams in the MVC, this class has led the resurgence of the women's cross country team at SIU, finishing runner-up the past three seasons.
"They've done a lot for the program, they took us from the place that we were four or five years ago, in my first year here - an afterthought in the MVC conference, to a consistent top three finisher now. They have three MVC runner-up awards which is something that very few college athletes can claim. We would like for the seniors to go out with a special meet Saturday," said Sparks.
Saturday's meet is set to take place at the Les Bolstad Golf Course in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. It will be familiar terrain for Birn, Rinker, Schilling and Wagner as they ran the course at the 2005 Roy Griak Invitational. Rinker led SIU's effort in the meet, finishing 22nd individually.
"It is a more hilly, rugged course than we are used to. But, the women have been there so they know a little more what to expect. On the men's side, once again, they are a young team but every time I get a little worried about that inexperience showing itself, they always seem to perform like veterans. So, I expect the same thing out of the men, even though it is a 10K race and it's on a more rugged course than they have run all year. I still expect them to perform like they have all year and perform like veterans, even though they are a team primarily of freshmen and sophomores," said Sparks.
"Had a good week of practice this week, everybody's feeling good about what they are doing and everybody is healthy. The weather, you never know what you are going to get. That was a fear factor when they announced that we were going to Minnesota, you never know what's going to happen."
Action in Saturday's meet is set to kick off with the women's 6K at 11 a.m. The men's 10K will follow at 12:15 p.m. Results and meet information can be found at the University of Minnesota Web site.