Sports dynasties are models of consistency. Dynastic teams experience continued success because of teamwork and a culture of winning.
While it may be too soon to call Western Washington University’s men’s cross country team a dynasty, with seven straight trips to the NCAA Division II National Championships, the team has the foundation for continued success.
On Saturday, Nov. 22, the Vikings will go for an eighth straight trip to the national championships when they compete at the West Regional in Billings, Mont. Coach Pee Wee Halsell is optimistic the men can do it.
“We need to be in the top six,” Halsell said in a phone interview. “My main goal is for them to qualify, so if we just get sixth place I’ll be happy. I don’t think we’re a sixth-place team, though. We’re ranked fifth, but I think a realistic vision is third.”
To qualify, one of WWU’s runners will need to step up and lead the team. At the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships on Saturday, Nov. 1, in Monmouth, Ore. just 22.3 seconds separated the Vikings’ No. 1 runner, Isaac Griffith, from their No. 5 runner.
“Isaac was our top runner at conference, but it’s a really tight group of guys,” Halsell said. “Last year he ended up being our top guy at the national meet. We have three returning all-region athletes: Ike, Tabor (Reedy) and Nathan (Richards).”
Griffith, who his teammates and coaches call Ike, took ninth overall at the GNAC Championship meet, one of the races he said he focused on this season.
He and his teammates put in a lot of work over the offseason to improve on their performance from last year. Griffith focused a lot on his strength training.
“David Burnett, our assistant, has helped a lot with strength,” Griffith said in a phone interview. “It’s easy to overlook that because you think running is just go out and run as fast as you can, but strength training helps you build stronger muscles to go longer and faster. It gets you sore at first, but it helps you recover faster and prevents injuries. I haven’t been injured all year and I think that is part of it.”
Griffith knows that for the Vikings to be in the top three he or another teammate has to lead the way. He is prepared to be that leader, but doesn’t think it has to be him.
“On a good day I could be the fourth or fifth runner,” he said. “That just shows how tight we are running. Once we go in there and get our four and five runners in front of the other schools, that’s a big difference in points. We have a lot faster four and five than other schools.”
The key to having the WWU runners so close together is their team mentality, Griffith said. When he and other Vikings were freshmen or just joined the team, they would run with the upperclassmen and push each other in workouts.
Though they don’t have a true top runner, it can be good to have such a consistent team, he added.
Griffith also worked on perfecting his running this season, down to the smallest details.
“I’ve been working on my form and a lot of the little things, like strides and working on my core,” he said. “Just the little things, because I feel like I have the running part down, it’s just small stuff.”
He’s also confident the Vikings have a good shot to advance to an eighth-straight National Championship meet. Though the flat course in Billings may be a little different than what the Vikings are used to, since they train on the trails in the Chuckanut hills.
“I think we have a really good chance. This is an amazing group of guys, we’re all really close time-wise and that goes with us pushing each other,” Griffith said. “I think a lot of our team likes hills. One of the guys is all about flat stuff, so that will help him, but some of us would prefer hills.”
For the women, qualifying for a fifth National Championship meet in seven years should be achievable, Halsell said.
“They’re ranked fourth, but the second-place team is Simon Fraser and we were only two points behind them at the conference meet,” he said. “If they run the same way they did at that meet, we can beat them.”
It also looks like the WWU women’s leading runner, Katelyn Steen has a good shot at the individual regional title.
“She proved she was the top of our conference, and everyone returning to regionals this year hasn’t beaten her this year or last,” Halsell said. “It’s just the new ones you don’t know about. I’m not seeing anyone else that really stands out.”
Both the WWU men’s and women’s cross country teams will look for yet another trip to the National Championship meet on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the West Regional meet in Billings, Mont.