The cross country team at the University of Saint Mary has a motto the team lives by, “The art of the hero is not about being brave but it is about being so competent there is no need to be brave.”

Head coach Alstin Benton said the team did everything they could this season to be the “heroes” when it mattered most. He said that was all he could ask for.

He said the thing he will remember the most from this season is the tough times. 

“The tough times I will always cherish the most,” Benton said. “Watching the resilience of the human spirit when things get tough is a beautiful thing. This sport humbles you pretty quickly but it is amazing when it pays off. Winning those conference championships and seeing the joy of hard work pay off is pretty special.”

The cross country team finished the season last Friday at the NAIA Championships with the men placing fifth and the women coming in at 25th. Both were the highest finishes in program history. Benton was proud of both the men and women runners after their races.

“The men ran phenomenal,” Benton said. “A lot of coaches in the coaches poll were doubting our No. 7 ranking going into nationals and they had every right to do so. The men came out and put on a show and fought like dogs to prove they belonged. The women have never finished top 25 before so I am so proud of them for that. I think we had the potential to be a top 20 team but it just wasn’t our day out there. That comes back on me and not having them ready to handle such a big race with over 300 people. We got caught in the packs and couldn’t break out.”

The strong performance at the championships was headlined once again by Phillip Lagemann and Kaitlyn Shoemaker. Benton said the two were the team’s MVPs.

“Phillip Lagemann and Kaitlyn Shoemaker are definitely our team MVPs,” he said. “They have been our top runners all year. Phillip finished fourth at nationals with a school record and highest ever individual finish for Saint Mary running 8K in 24:31. Kaitlyn finished eighth overall running 17:41, which is also a school record and highest ever individual finish.”

Benton was also asked who the most improved runners on the team were. 

“Eric Vazquez is a sophomore,” Benton said. “Last year he didn’t make our nationals team as a freshman. Came back this year after a solid summer of training and it paid off big. He ended up being our No. 2 runner (at nationals) and the seventh fastest athlete in school history. Pretty cool to watch.”

He also said Brittany White-Dold improved over the last two years.  

“She is a junior,” he said. “She has been working really hard for the past two years to improve and it has been a slow process. I asked her to trust me and hang in there and she did. She went from running 21-minute 5Ks in high school to a personal record of 18:47 this year and the fourth fastest runner in school history.”

Going into the year, Benton said it was a goal to get the women near the level of success that the men had. He said getting into the top 25 is a start and the team is on the right path to be a consistent top 15 program nationally. He said battling for team titles at the national level will be the goal next year.

“You can’t win them all but I sure want to be in the fight,” Benton said.

The men will return the majority of their top runners next season. Lagemann was the top runner but the men will return the No. 2 to No. 7 runners on the team. No. 2 to No. 6 are all sophomores this season so Benton said there is a lot of potential moving forward. The women are expected to be led by White-Dold.

“On the women’s side we expect Brittany to be a top returner,” Benton said. “But we have some other athletes that are younger that will absolutely contribute going forward.”

Although the cross country season is over, the competitive running is not. All of the cross country runners will compete in track. 

Benton said they will split up and run anything from the 800 meters up to a marathon. 

The indoor track and field season kicks off Dec. 1 when the team travels to Lawrence for the Bob Timmons Challenge.