For the first time in program history, the Montreat men’s cross country team is the Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) champion. They captured the title at the conference meet in Canton, Georgia on Nov. 3.
By winning the AAC, the Cavaliers also earned an automatic bid to the NAIA Nationals on Nov. 16 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It will also be the first time a Cavs’ cross country team heads to the nationals.
“This was our goal all along – to win an AAC title and get the automatic berth to nationals that comes along with it,” said head coach Jason Lewkowicz, who leads the Cavaliers cross country program and also is the overall director of track and field at Montreat. “So that was a goal from day one. We didn’t talk about it, we just kind of knew we had a good enough chance to do it if it came together and we were blessed to get healthy at the right time.”
The top finisher for the Cavaliers was freshman Nathan Richards, who crossed the line fourth overall in the field of 78.
Sophomore Benjamin Schmidt finished seventh overall, with Antonio Gomez rounding out the race’s top ten with a 26:17.48 time. Also scoring for the Cavs were junior Jacob Parker (14) and sophomore Caleb Silver (15). Next in for Montreat were Rylan Hincher, Daniel O’Dell, and Garret Welsh.
It was a long road, both figuratively and literally, for the Cavs to the conference championship. They opened the season with a dual meet with nearby Warren Wilson College.
From there they headed east to face NCAA Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory and finished fifth in a field of seven. Weather then cancelled a planned trip to the Furman XC Classic on September 15.
Two days later, the team earned a spot in the NAIA national poll at #23, the first time that a Cavalier squad has ever broken the nation’s top 25.
“Even when we got ranked, we didn’t talk a whole lot about it. We knew we were focused on the end result,” said Lewkowicz. “So I think things played out well. We were able to hit it at the right time. I still think we haven’t run our best race yet.”
At the Greater Louisville XC Classic in late September the team struggled, finishing 30th out of 45 teams in the field.
“I think that Louisville meet really kind of set us back. We had a great opportunity to run against some ranked teams and we just weren’t healthy at that race and it showed,” said Lewkowicz. “I wasn’t what we need but we didn’t fret over that.”
In that race, sophomore standout Caleb Silver was just coming off injury and senior leader Rylan Hincher struggled with a lingering illness that slowed him during the heart of the Cavs’ fall season.
The Cavs then jumped up to 19th in a field of 43 in the competitive Queens Royals Challenge in Charlotte and in late October captured 4th out of 33 teams in the USC-Beaufort Sandshark Invitational. They followed that with their AAC title.
“We’re trending upwards and I think our past three meets have been our best races of the season. Progressively we’re getting better and we needed to be good to beat Milligan [College], and we were. So, it was a good morning,” said Lewkowicz. Milligan is a perennial power in the AAC and finished second in both the men’s and women’s races this year.
Lewkowicz see potential at the nationals in the continued return to form of Silver and Hincher, as well as the development of his three front runners of late – Richards, Schmidt, and Gomez. A sometimes overlooked but frequent scorer for the Cavs is the junior, Jason Parker.
“Jason Parker has really been kind of a rock for us. He’s just been consistent all year long,” said the head coach. “He’s stepped up when someone has fallen back.”
Lewkowicz feels that his freshmen runners are still getting used to the longer 8k distance most often run by men’s teams in college, up from high school’s typical 5k.
He sees an especially high ceiling for Gomez, both at the upcoming nationals and as a freshman with a full career still ahead of him. The runner hails from Frostproof, Florida.
“Gomez ran a good race, but honestly I think he’s just as talented as Nathan is. If he gets the confidence and decides he want to go run with his teammate [Richards] at the nationals, I believe he can stay with him,” said Lewkowicz. “So that’s why I think we still have some potential to run better.”
For the Montreat women, the Valley’s top distance runner this fall, Lydia Wilson, finished third at the conference meet, and punched a return ticket to the NAIA Nationals as an individual.
“Lydia ran well and stuck her nose in from the start with two runners from SCAD Atlanta [Emily Kearney and Sandra Pflughoft] and that’s good company. I think all three of them have a legitimate shot at All-American this weekend,” said Lewkowicz.
Just missing the nationals was freshman Skyler Tait. The Franklin, North Carolina product has consistently been the Cavs’ next best runner behind Wilson and finished .2 seconds off the qualifying standard.
The women’s team finished 4th out of 14 teams in the AAC. They continue to move into the thick of the lead pack in the expanding AAC after finishing seventh (of 12) in 2016, and sixth (of 13) last year.
“This was the fittest team we’ve had and it’s probably the team I’ve enjoyed the most as far as their work ethic and their attitude and how they’ve come together,” said Lewkowicz of his women’s squad. “So, I was really proud of how well they did.”