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ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University cross-country teams will get an early wake-up call for Friday’s NAIA Championships at Apalachee Regional Park.
The No. 6-ranked Raider men begin their 8,000-meter race at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time and 8:30 a.m. local time in Tallahassee, Fla., and the No. 12-ranked Raider women hit the starting line for their 5K an hour later — easily the earliest starts they’ve ever had on the national stage.
The times were set months in advance with usual steamy Florida temperatures in mind, but the high in Friday’s forecast is just 60 degrees.
Both races will feature 36 full teams, in addition to 78 at-large individuals on the men’s side and 90 in the women’s race. The top-40 placers in each will be considered All-Americans. (Prior to 2020, the bar was top-30.)
SOU is four years removed from its second and most recent combined national title, clinched when both teams took fourth in the standings.
The Raiders will have to outperform their rankings significantly to hang another combined banner; six different schools are top-10 in both polls, and Milligan (Tenn.) is No. 1 in the men’s Top 25 and No. 2 in the women’s Top 25.
Of the 16 Raiders traveling, 11 also competed at last year’s NAIA Championships in Vancouver, Wash., where the men finished 14th and the women were 18th.
The SOU men are national meet qualifiers for a 14th consecutive season and have finished top-four in the team standings 10 times during the run. The 2010 and 2016 teams set the bar with national championships, and they finished second every year from 2012-14. The fourth-place squad in 2008 earned SOU’s first trophy.
Isaac Fernandez, who two weeks ago claimed SOU’s first individual Cascade Conference title since 2015 as the Raiders won their first team championship in five years, is attempting to become a two-time All-American. The senior placed 38th last year in leading SOU to 14th in the team standings.
There have been six two-time All-Americans during the Raiders’ active 14-year run: David Laney (2009-10), Ryan Sorenson (2010-11), Eric Ghelfi (2013-14), Connor Cushman (2016-17), Noah Oberriter (2017-18), and Brandon Kelsey (2018-19).
Three other Raiders are back after competing at last year’s national race, and two of them — Jensen Salvatori and Lincoln Woodhouse — earned All-CCC honors two weeks ago. Salvatori placed third, Woodhouse was eighth, and newcomers Logan Jones (9th), Frankie Maciel (13th) and Zackary Alexander (15th) were also all-conference performers.
The Raiders’ No. 6 men’s ranking is their highest entering the national meet since they were No. 5 in 2019.
Two Raiders have won individual NAIA titles: Kelly Jensen in 1978 and Eric Avila in 2013. The last Raiders to finish top-10 were eighth-place Max Runia and ninth-place Eric Ghelfi in 2014.
Milligan (Tenn.) is the defending champion and has retained the No. 1 ranking for all but one week this season.
The Raider women are appearing at the meet for the ninth time and have qualified in eight of their last nine seasons. Their best-ever finish was fourth place in 2018, when they produced two All-Americans and all five of their scorers were top-82. They turned in seventh-place finishes in 2010 and 2016, and they were ninth in 2019 despite not having an All-American.
Of the eight Raiders traveling this week, seven of them raced for last year’s 18th-place team. Going into last year, only one Raider, Sydnee Kizziar, had previous experience at the national meet.
Kizziar — who two weeks ago became a three-time All-Cascade Conference runner — led the Raiders in 37th place in 2019 and was their second finisher in 116th place in 2021. Kayla Clayton was just nine spots removed from All-America status last year in 49th.
The Raiders are coming off their fourth consecutive second-place finish at the CCC Championships. They had four all-conference runners, and their depth showed as Clayton (10th place) and Kizziar (12th) ended up as their third and fourth scorers behind Lauren Forster (7th) and Alejandra Lopez (9th).
Jessa Perkinson owns SOU’s best-ever individual finish at the meet. She attained runner-up status in 2016.
Milligan (Tenn.) is the defending team champion. Taylor (Ind.), which finished fourth last year, is the pre-race favorite as the unanimous top-ranked team.
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