Women’s cross country claims conference championship

Story by Megan Henry

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The Baker University women’s cross country team won the Heart of America Athletic Conference championship meet on Saturday, earning the Wildcats’ first team bid to the NAIA national championships since 2010.

Five women finished in the top 10, including senior Lauren Jaqua in first, senior Megan Rosa in third, freshman Jillian Benson in fourth, senior Ashely McBride in sixth and junior Kerry Kurta in 10th.

“Cross country has a pretty long season and we don’t have many days off, so at times it can be difficult to stay motivated for this long,” Rosa said. “So our win shows a lot about our team’s dedication, especially at this course, which was deceptively challenging.”

This was Jaqua’s third consecutive year to take home first in the HAAC championship meet. This year, she finished with a time of 18:54.

“It feels amazing to be a conference champion three years in a row because I made it a goal of mine and I have achieved it,” Jaqua said.

Jaqua’s personal goal is to become and All-American at nationals on Nov. 23 at Rim Rock Farms in Lawrence. It has been a dream of hers throughout college, and she finds the goal to be realistic as well.

“I expect to give nothing less than my best in my final collegiate cross country race, and I refuse to let myself cross the finish line with any regrets,” Jaqua said. “Ending my cross country career will definitely be bittersweet. I ended my high school cross country career at Rim Rock Farms, and I will finish my collegiate cross country career crossing the same finish line.”

The last time the women’s team advanced to nationals was in 2010, but Jaqua and McBride have qualified each season.

“The last two years we have been pretty disappointed at conference,” Rosa said. “But to finish on top and go to nationals my senior year is really awesome. At the finish line it was like freshman year all over again. Everyone was crying, laughing and hugging. It was so great.”

Before the race, freshman Jillian Benson was worried her stressful week and nerves would affect her running. However, she was able to push through and race better than she expected.

“I’m so proud of my team. We really wanted to win, and (Central Methodist University) is such a good team, and they were right there with us,” Benson said. “We had to think that since we’re up against a good team that could take it away from us.”

Rosa hopes the team is able to take advantage of their knowledge of the Rim Rock course and be prepared for the hills, unlike teams from other parts of the country.

“We hope to take advantage of the opportunity to race at nationals,” Rosa said. “We have some stud hill runners who raced really well a few weeks ago, so hopefully they’ll be able to race at that caliber again and maybe we can creep into the top 15.”

The men’s team ended its run of back-to-back conference titles Saturday, falling behind Missouri Valley College, Central Methodist and Graceland University. While BU did not have any individual qualifiers for the national meet, freshman Corey Matteson and junior Vincent Tadokoro earned all-conference honors.