Men's cross country team headed to national championships

The Gator men's cross country team will travel to Joplin, Mo. this Saturday for the chance to become the NCAA Division II National Champions.

"There are very few runners who are still practicing now -- their seasons are all done," said head coach Tom Lyons. "It feels good to be part of those few. It's quite an accomplishment to be training for nationals right now."

A photo of Bruk Assefa running

Bruk Assefa (Credit: Ross Deniston/SF State Athletics)

The team earned the right to compete after a fourth place finish at the NCAA Division II West Regional championships in Kahuku, Hawaii on Nov. 3. That race was highlighted by a ninth place overall finish by junior Bruk Assefa, which earned him All-Region honors. The Gators plan to take that momentum from regionals to Missouri for a chance at the national title.

"This week we're preparing ourselves mentally," said senior Brian Trejo. "We've been cutting back on the mileage, and we're running a little less to give our bodies some rest. Other than that, we're trying to treat it like a normal week."

The Gator runners did well at races throughout the year, finishing third at the Charles Bowles Invitational in Oregon and first at their own SF State Invitational, held in Golden Gate Park. They finished fifth out of eight teams at the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Championships in October.

The national championships have not been on the Gators' radar in recent years, as the team has been developing younger runners, said Lyons. This year, the Gators are ranked 22nd nationally and the majority of runners on the team are experienced seniors. Even with a few runners coping with injuries and illnesses during the season, others like Assefa, Ernesto Rodriguez and Tyler Deniston have led the way.

A photo of Tyler Deniston running.

Tyler Deniston (Credit: Ross Deniston/SF State Athletics)

"We've definitely had our rough patches this year," said Trejo, who was sidelined for most of the season due to an Achilles injury. "But we've really supported each other out there on the course and off. We did whatever it took to get back out there."

The championship races pose different challenges from races during the regular season. Most courses during the regular season are 8 kilometers. The regionals and nationals each have 10 kilometer courses, requiring more endurance. The Gator squad has been preparing for the longer races in practice and is confident with the longer run.

"We've been looking toward November as the month we want to run well," said Lyons. "We've been training all year to go to nationals. Now we're excited, we're in a great frame of mind, and we're ready to go."

-- Philip Riley