The Southern Illinois University men's and women's cross country teams are set to head to Peoria today for the third time in five weeks – this time to compete at the 2018 NCAA Midwest Regional.
A total of 35 schools from 12 conferences will travel to Bradley University for a chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships in Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 17. The top-two teams in each race will qualify for the national meet, as will the top-four individuals not attached to a team already qualified. An additional 13 teams and a variable number of individuals are chosen at-large in the days leading up to the national meet.
SIU will face fierce competition as they compete against some of the top teams in the nation. The field includes four conference champions on the men's side (Bradley – Missouri Valley, Iowa State – Big 12, Tulsa – American, South Dakota State – Summit League) and four conference champions on the women's side (Bradley – MVC, Iowa State – Big 12, South Dakota – Summit League, Wichita State – American).
The Salukis are one of several teams who have already raced on the Newman Golf Course in a large scale meet this season- the Bradley Pink Classic on Oct. 12. Redshirt senior Josh Maier finished third that day and was the top NCAA DI finisher in a crowded field of 273 runners.
"This race will be more like when we were at the Bradley Pink Classic," third-year head coach Kevin Cataldo said. "The course is fast but you have to get out quicker because with so many people it is difficult to move through. If we're too far back we will spend too much energy weaving in and out of people as opposed to getting out a little quicker and running our race."
On the men's side, MVC Champion Josh Maier will try to repeat as All-Region with a top-25 finish and looks to become the first Saluki since Brian Dixon in 2012 to qualify for the national meet. Maier became the first Saluki since Dixon to earn All-Region honors a year ago with his 23rd place finish at the regional meet.
Heading into today's meet, Maier will have the added confidence of knowing that he's bested several runners over the past two races that have individually qualified for the national meet in past seasons.
"Four of the people he beat at the MVC meet made it to the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the past," Cataldo said. "So going in he knows he's already beat people who have made it to NCAAs as individuals. But it all comes down to the day. It comes down to executing on Friday. With Josh, he's a gamer. He shows up, time and time again. We've been talking strategy and he is ready to go."
Both Saluki men's and women's teams will be looking to improve upon their finishes from a year ago. SIU's women, who will enter just one runner, Megan Krolak, who has previously raced at a regional meet, finished 27th a year ago while the men's team returns five runners that helped SIU finish 23rd at last year's regional race.
"I think we can jump more than a few spots as long as everyone runs their race," Cataldo said of the prospects of moving up in the team standings. "If each runner runs their race, we're going to make a big leap from last year."
At the 2018 MVC Cross Country Championships, 11 of SIU's 13 runners recorded lifetime-bests, led by Maier, who clocked the first sub-24 minute 8K by a Saluki at the conference meet since Olympian Eddie Wedderburn ran a winning time of 23:55 in 1983.
"As a coach you cant get mad when you have that many personal-bests times," Cataldo said. "If anything, this is the time of the year when you want to run your fastest. You want to run your best, that's what we train for. We hope that the snowball continues to build as we head into the regional meet."