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Vikings ready for challenge, redemption as host of NCAA Central Region championship

Augustana College
Augustana College

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KWSN) - Augustana continues their postseason march to the NCAA Championships by hosting the Central Region cross country championships on Nov. 9 at Yankton Trails Park. The women's 6,000-meter race begins at 10:30 a.m.and the men's 10,000-meter run is set to start at 11:30 a.m.The men and women are both the defending champions of the Central Region, taking the first titles after the regions realigned last season.

This is also the first time Augustana has hosted a regional championship in cross country. The men won their first region title since 1991 one season ago, just their second overall, and look to be an unstoppable force heading into this weekend's race, but the addition of 13 more teams isn't to be taken lightly according to head coach Tracy Hellman."It's not going to be that type of dominating performance [like the NSIC Championships] this weekend because the talent of the individuals coming into the meet," Hellman said.

"The [Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association] has some really good individuals; guys that can place high at the national meet, so this is going to be a good test for our team."One of the individuals Hellman may be referring to is the only runner to beat Augustana senior Paul Yak at the Roy Griak Invitational earlier this season. Yak's runner-up finish launched the Vikings towards a thumping of the Division II competition, but the individual title eluded him and was taken by Pittsburgh State's Adam Volkert.

Yak will be looking to duplicate former Viking standout Travis Beniak's individual region championship last season after Yak cruised to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference individual crown two weeks ago. Yak was a key cog in the machine that produced the first region championship in over 20 years, but if possible, the team that produced just 31 points en route to victory may be even more dangerous this year.

The Vikings produced 10 all-conference runners placing in the top 18 of the NSIC Championships -- five of the top six -- to win the conference title and show off their immense depth."It's always hard and I think good teams always have this problem," Hellman said of the difficulty of choosing his top seven runners for NCAA postseason competition. "It's a good problem to have, but it is tough. You have guys that really want to run at the regional and national meets and feel deserving and it's hard as coaches to make the decision. But at the end of the day, we have to make the decision on the best seven runners that will give us the best chance to win a national title.

"The luxury of depth can help offset injuries which can easily derail a season, but when the depth is as talented as the Vikings possess, it begins to show on the racepaths."It's what makes us better, too," Hellman said. "We know that within our team we have competition. If you have really strong, competitive workouts within your team, that's going to translate to the race course."Using the NSIC Championships as a measuring stick for his runners, Hellman selected the top seven Augustana runners to represent the Vikings in the NCAA Central Region Championships.

Behind Yak, brothers Tom Karbo and Harald Karbo bring the Norwegian grit that has helped Augustana's cross country program rise to the elite ranks of Division II. Adam Braun won the Vikings' season-opening meet and brings region experience after finishing as the runner-up last season, in Joplin, Mo.John Klecker joins the established runners after a strong showing at the conference meet. Jordan Slusser, one of three seniors for the Vikings, has been on numerous championship teams and will be pushing the Vikings towards another. Another runner with postseason experience is TJ Gleason who was the sixth finisher for the Vikings in last year's regional, and he rounds out the Vikings' seven runners.

The men's depth shows how nice it is to have numbers and options in choosing a lineup. The Augustana women's team's lack of depth shows that knowing the lineup heading into race isn't any less stressful. A few of the Viking runners, namely senior three-time All-American Runa Falch, didn't race their best at the NSIC Championships and Augustana had their streak of six consecutive conference championships snapped by Minnesota Duluth.Finishing in second among 15 programs, four of which were ranked in the latest top-25 poll, wouldn't seem like the worst outcome, but it definitely wasn't the desired one.

Augustana dropped eight spots in the USTFCCCA coaches' poll which meant they were no longer in the top 10 for the first time since the 2010 season. Replacing them was UMD and now the Vikings realize it isn't going to be a stroll to earn the respect they've gained over the past three seasons."I think we got a wake-up call in some ways,' Hellman said of his women's team's finish at the NSIC Championships. "I thought we were really passive at the conference meet and didn't race aggressively.

I felt that if we would have run aggressively, we would have had more of an opportunity to win. Minnesota Duluth is ranked No. 8 and this is a good challenge for us. We are going up against a top 10 national team and if we can come in and beat them, it will set us up well to reach our team goals and that has always been to win a trophy at the NCAA Championships "The Vikings have combated their inexperience this season with the strong running of seniors Falch and Kristin Brondbo.

The two three-time All-Americans experienced their first conference defeat on Oct. 26, but are the key to the Vikings' chances which may have increased with a bigger field."In the bigger meets that we run, I think we are a better team on the women's side," Hellman said, showing that one defeat won't derail his season. "With Runa and Kristin, we have opportunities to have low sticks. The bigger races, the higher they're going to be up there. At a conference meet, the teams and individuals are a little bit closer together. I do think we are a better team at the bigger meets because of that."

A quartet of juniors, Megan Brown, Meritxell Delgado, Gabi Swoboda, and Kaitlyn Yoerg, are the key to bringing the Vikings their second women's region championship in program history -- Augustana's national runner-up squad brought home their first region crown last season.On the horizon, both Viking squads have a shot at returning to glory in a familiar place. The NCAA Championships are being held in Spokane, Wash., the site of Augustana's women's 2011 national championship.

But first, the women are looking at reestablishing themselves after a misstep at the conference championships and the men are ready show that there is elite talent to their proven depth. 

As for hosting, the head coach knows that they are one step away from the national meet, but they have to take that step in another familiar place."It's exciting that the road to nationals goes through Sioux Falls. We have to be ready to perform."

Courtesy: Augustana College