WALLA WALLA — The Northwest Conference Cross Country Championships that will be run Saturday at the Sunset Grove Golf Course in Forest Grove, Ore., mean different things to different schools.
For some, the men’s and women’s conference championships are the culmination of the season and they prepare for them accordingly.
For others, and Whitman College can be counted among them, Saturday’s races are a stepping stone to the NCAA Division III West Regionals that are scheduled for Nov. 10 at the Oak Knoll Golf Course in Independence, Ore.
“We use the conference races to prepare for regionals,” Whitman coach Scott Shields said, noting that while runners from some of the NWC schools will be tapered and in top form Saturday, his runners will not.
“This is just the beginning of the championship season for us,” Shields said. “And we don’t want to put all of our eggs in the same basket. We want to compete and do well this weekend, but our focus is to use Saturday as a stepping stone to regionals.”
Whitman’s runners, Shields said, will begin their tapers following Saturday’s races.
Which is not to say there aren’t some important matters to be settled Saturday in Forest Grove.
In addition to determining the conference champion teams, the top seven men and women will earn all-Northwest Conference honors. The next seven runners in each race will receive honorable mention recognition.
And then there’s the matter of determining who will represent Whitman at regionals. Shields has entered 10 men and 10 women at the conference meet, and the top seven finishers in each race will earn spots on the regional teams.
“Once we go into our final taper, I want to allow them to prepare for regionals,” Shields said. “We want to take the pressure off both physically and mentally.”
Whitman has competed in four races leading up to Saturday’s conference championships. And Shields believes his runners have achieved their objectives so far.
“I believe, top to bottom, we have improved,” he said. “We have run different races that make it difficult to figure out where our times are. But the way I feel, the way things have gone, there has been a lot of success and a lot of improvement, especially in the team concept.”
Seniors Taylor Mesojednik and Cory Rand, the Missionary co-captains, have generally been running 1-2 this fall on the men’s team, Shields said. And juniors Spencer Corwin and Joe Mayo have been 3-4.
“I think our senior co-captains have all-conference potential,” Shields said. “I’m hoping they can step up and make the team, although our conference is extremely strong. We will have to have some pretty great races for them to step up.”
Senior twin sisters Emilie and Katri Gilbert of Bellevue carry the fortunes of the Whitman women’s team into the championship season.
Emilie, who was all-conference, all-region and an NCAA Division III nationals qualifier last year, continues to hold down the No. 1 spot on the team, just ahead of Katri, who narrowly missed earning all-NWC honors as a junior and was the Whits’ No. 3 runner at regionals.
“They are both all-conference caliber runners,” Shields said. “But I believe any one of our top five has that potential.
“Depth is the strength of the women’s team, not just in numbers but also in times,” he continued. “There’s a 30-second difference between our No. 1 through No. 7 runners, and from 7 to 10 it is probably another 15-second difference. So, on any day a runner can move up.”
The men’s 8-kilometer race begins at 11 a.m. and the women’s 6K starting gun will sound at noon.
Shields expects his women’s team to challenge for third place in the final team standings — the Whits have finished fourth the last two years — and he hopes for fifth or better for the men’s team.
“For a lot of the schools, the conference race is the last race of the season, so they will taper for this race,” he said. “We have individuals with nationals possibilities, so we are pointing to the (national qualifying) regional races.
“We usually don’t finish as well in conference, but we come back and beat some of those schools at regionals.”