Summit League Championship Preview

The Summit League is a relatively small conference comprised of schools across the Midwest, ranging from Nebraska to Indiana. While the conference may not boast the big name teams of other leagues, the championship meet on Saturday should feature quite a bit of talent that could make names for themselves at the regional meets in two weeks time.

Men's Preview

On the men’s side, the South Dakota State (SDSU) Jackrabbits come in as the usual favorites after winning the meet for the past three years. Last fall, SDSU placed seven men inside the top 10 at the Summit League Championships. Of those seven, only one has graduated. The other six all return and given that none are redshirting, they will likely be back in action on Saturday.

This fall, Joe Minor-Williams and Micah Mather have stepped up big for SDSU to fill the top two spots. With Kyle Burdick graduating and Chase Cayo returning from injury, Minor-Williams and Mather have led SDSU to some strong showings, most recently finishing 21st at Pre-Nationals. Both should be in contention for the individual title this weekend and should finish in the top five on Saturday.

Behind these two, SDSU has incredible depth within the conference. Lukas Nelson, Gabe Peters, and Tom Breuckman finished 6th, 7th, and 9th at this meet last fall. Breuckman has made big strides in 2019 and has found himself in numerous positions (including the lead spot) of SDSU's lineup this fall.

Similarly, both Peters and Nelson have shuffled around within the scoring group for the Jackrabbits this season. All three have strong potential to be in the top 10 once again this weekend, giving SDSU the potential to put five (or more) runners in the top 10.

One Jackrabbit to keep an eye on this weekend will be redshirt senior Chase Cayo - a former Summit League champion in both cross country and track. During the spring of 2019, Cayo came down with a nagging bone injury and has spent much of his build up for cross country in the pool and on the bike.

He has now raced twice this season (Briar Cliff and Pre-Nationals) and although he is not quite back to the same level, he seems to be getting stronger with each week. Cayo is one who will surely be in contention for a top five finish after placing as the #4 SDSU runner at Pre-Nationals. If he is able to relocate his previous fitness, then he could easily put himself in a position to win the whole meet.

Beating South Dakota State is going to be a big challenge for any team given that the Jacks could take up the majority of the top 10. However, there are a handful of individuals who have a good chance to break up any shot at a perfect score.

The University of South Dakota (USD) Coyotes have two men who have looked particularly strong this season - sophomore Merga Gemeda and true freshman Clayton Whitehead. In his first season, Gemeda was a bit of a wildcard who showed flashes of brilliance which were marred by inconsistency.

After the graduation of distance standout Eldon Warner, Gemeda has stepped up big in his sophomore campaign and has led the Yotes at all but one meet this season. He has put together a string of strong runs, most recently placing 13th in a strong field at the Bradley Classic. A year ago, Gemeda was 10th at this meet. This time around he should have his sights set on the individual win.

Whitehead was not at this meet in 2018, but he’s on pace to make a splash in his conference meet debut. He has been finishing right around Gemeda at every meet this season and was only seven seconds back at Bradley, dipping under the 25 minute barrier in the process.

The most remarkable part of Whitehead’s season has been his consistency from meet to meet. While many freshmen struggle in their first year, Whitehead has looked solid each time he steps up to the line. Given how close to Gemeda he has been, a top five finish is a very reasonable goal for the young Yote.

From the other Dakota, the Bison of North Dakota State (NDSU) bring another couple guys who could be vying for the win on Saturday. Junior duo Alex Bartholomay and Tim Heikkila have been leading the Bison in 2019 and should be in the mix up front at the Summit League Championships. In 2018, both of these runners just missed out on top 10 finishes with Bartholomay placing 16th and Heikkila coming in at 20th.

In 2019, they hope to rewrite that narrative and have looked poised to do so thus far.

Earlier this fall, Heikkila took down all of the Jackrabbits at the SDSU XC Classic. A few weeks later, the roles were reversed, with three Jacks finishing ahead of Heikkila at the Roy Griak Invitational.

The NDSU junior has had a bit of a polarizing season compared to his fall of 2018, but this is largely influenced by matters outside of training. Heikkila is in the nursing program at NDSU and has been participating in clinicals this fall which have stressed his balance between training and other things. He’s coming off of a good run at the Ron Pynn Classic, finishing 4th overall. He should be someone to watch on Saturday.

Alex Bartholomay also looks ready to roll for this weekend, coming off of an individual win at Ron Pynn. The NDSU junior has been the top runner for the Bison at two of their competitions this season and looks to be putting things together just in time for the conference meet.

Bartholomay had an underwhelming performance at this meet a year ago, but he is definitely a top 10 talent in the Summit League this season. Having finished just behind the trio of Jacks at the Roy Griak Invitational, Bartholomay should find himself in the mix early on and could be a dark horse to win the meet.

One other guy to watch in the individual race on Saturday is Luke Labatte of the University of North Dakota. The true freshman finished right on the heels of Bartholomay at Ron Pynn and has looked strong over the past few months. While he likely will have to wait a couple years to be a contender for the overall title, Labatte figures to be a top 10 talent this year.

While both NDSU and USD have good squads, neither has the depth to match SDSU on Saturday. The Bison look like a safe bet for the runner-up spot, with a strong, young group that could be dangerous in the coming years. Unless SDSU completely falls apart, they should make it four-for-four on Saturday.

Author’s Note: As an alum of SDSU, I am going to refrain from making any predictions about any of the teams or individuals running on Saturday. My only prediction is that they all run much faster than I ever did.

Women's Preview

On the women’s side, the team race figures to be much closer and could come down to the wire. Last year, only 10 points separated team champion South Dakota (USD) and 3rd place South Dakota State (SDSU). With four of the top five individuals graduated, this meet figures to see a lot of new faces up front - and maybe even a new team atop the podium.

The women of South Dakota (USD) have been dominant in the Summit League. How dominant? Well, I was in high school the last time they didn’t win it all.

The Yotes will be aiming for their sixth consecutive Summit League title on Saturday and come in as the only Summit League school in the USTFCCCA Midwest Regional rankings (12th). The lead Yote, and one of the favorites for the individual title, is junior Abby Ripperda.

This season has been a big jump for Ripperda after she missed out on the conference meet in 2018, presumably due to injury (she had been racing prior). Ripperda has finished 1st or 2nd at all but one meet this season - the Chile Pepper XC Festival, where she was 8th.

For perspective, six of the seven women ahead of her are currently ranked in the top 35 of the TSR XC Individual rankings. There is no question that Ripperda comes in as a favorite to win the meet which would be huge for USD’s title hopes.

Behind Ripperda, a handful of Yotes return from 2018 with eyes on top 10 finishes. The group of Jonna Bart, Kianna Stewart, Kelsi Kearney and Laura Nelson all finished between 10th and 20th at this meet a year ago. With USD graduating two women from the top 10, some of these individuals will need to step up on Saturday to keep the streak alive.

Coming into this weekend, senior Kianna Stewart looks to have the best shot at a top 10 finish. She was the second Yote at the Bradley Pink Classic (behind Ripperda) and finished 14th overall. This fall she has been the #2 USD runner at every competition and should easily finish higher than her 2018 run of 14th place. With five of the women ahead of her from last year now gone, a top five finish for Stewart would be just the result USD needs to win the title.

Not far behind Stewart has been Jonna Bart. The junior was less than 10 seconds back at Bradley and is the highest returner of the group from 2018 (she was 10th). Along with Bart, both Laura Nelson and Kelsi Kearney should provide USD with a solid scoring group that should all finish near the top 10.

The biggest concern for the Yotes this season is that they lack the dominance up front of years past. Typically, they have been able to place multiple women in the top 10, but that has dropped off a bit in recent years. This was most notable in 2018 when their top two women finished 4th and 7th and the team barely beat out NDSU (by one point) for the title. Ripperda looks like almost a shoe-in for a top two finish, but the other Yotes will need to show up on Saturday for USD to win. While the squad is undoubtedly the favorite, they don’t seem like as safe of a bet as they have been in previous years.

After losing out by one point in 2018, North Dakota State (NDSU) will be looking to dethrone USD this time around. The Bison are led by potentially the best runner in the Summit League in junior Kelby Anderson.

Last fall, Anderson finished runner-up at this meet and has been on quite the run this season. She won the SDSU XC Classic and finished 5th overall at the Roy Griak Invitational, only seconds behind the Hasz twins of Minnesota. She was runner-up at Ron Pynn to U-Mary’s Ida Narbuvoll (TSR D2 #5) and comes in as the other favorite (along with Ripperda) to take home the W. Anderson and Ripperda have yet to race one another this season, but expect to see these two square off in an exciting battle.

Behind Anderson, senior Jen Dufner and junior Brynnan Covington look ready to make a run at top 10 finishes this weekend. Dufner finished 8th in 2018 and Covington was 12th. Both have been having fairly consistent seasons and look like realistic candidates to finish in the top 10 or so.

Along with those two, senior Melina Kuerschner, freshman Kaleesa Houston, and sophomore Mikayla Koenig are all coming off big races at Ron Pynn. Given that the meet had minimal depth, it’s hard to gauge just what those performances mean for this weekend, but all three should finish in the top 20 on Saturday.

The other team chasing South Dakota is their in-state rival, South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits had one of their best runs in recent years in 2018, narrowly missing out on the team title. After losing a handful of seniors to graduation, a young core has stepped up in 2019 to try and lift the Jackrabbits back into contention once again.

Leading SDSU is junior Anna Donnay. In her third season as a Jackrabbit, Donnay has made a huge jump this fall and could be a dark horse to win the individual title. At the Roy Griak Invitational, she finished 10th overall and was 32 seconds behind Anderson of NDSU. She was also runner-up to Anderson earlier in the year, finishing 21 seconds back at the SDSU XC Classic.

Donnay is coming off of her best race of the season where she finished 6th in the Pre-Nationals "B" race, only seconds behind Winny Koech of UTEP and Egle Morenaite of Iona. Given that her head-to-head record against Anderson is 0-2, Donnay is definitely a long shot to win the individual title. That said, she has a great chance to finish 3rd and always has the potential to surprise.

The next three Jackrabbits will likely be some combination of sophomores Ellie Friesen and Cailee Peterson as well as freshman Leah Hansen.

Friesen finished as the second SDSU runner at both Roy Griak and the SDSU Classic, but is coming off of a rough Pre-Nationals race where she was the team's #5 scorer. While she was only 18th in the Summit League last fall, she looks on pace to shoot for a top 10 mark come Saturday.

Similarly, Peterson has potential to mix it up near the front after sitting out in 2018 due to an injury. She has displayed great consistency this season and had a strong showing to finish 50th at Pre-Nationals ("B" race). Hansen is a bit of a wild card as a true freshman, but she will likely finish right around Peterson. Hansen has been within 10 seconds of Peterson in each of the past two competitions and doing so again this weekend could mean big points for SDSU.

Rounding out the scoring group will likely be one of either Kendra Dykstra, Emma Nelson, or Jessica Christoffer. These three have rotated in and out of the scoring spots throughout this season, but Dykstra is the most likely candidate to be that runner after placing 22nd in the Summit League in 2018. All three will be fighting key head-to-head battles with USD and NDSU runners that could provide the point swing needed to win it all.

No one outside of these three teams is likely to mix things up as a team. The University of North Dakota appears to be a safe bet for 4th as they have two strong individuals in Hannah Oscarson and Madison Overby. Both should be competing for top 10 finishes on Saturday.

As with the men, I will not be doing any predictions for the same reason.