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Tigers seek MIAA crown

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Tigers seek MIAA crown

Published on -10/19/2012, 10:26 AM

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For senior Alex Hendee and the Fort Hays State University men's cross country team, the national rankings have been the team's focus. That changes Saturday when the Tigers compete at the MIAA Championships in Maryville, Mo. Start time is 10 a.m.

The Tigers rank No. 25 in NCAA Division II, third-highest in the conference. Perennial power Missouri Southern State University stands 11th nationally, while Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University is 22nd. However, Fort Hays hasn't raced Missouri Southern or SBU yet this season.

Northwest Missouri State University is No. 29 nationally and defeated Fort Hays by four points at the FHSU Open on Oct. 6. Hendee didn't run because he was taking the LSAT. University of Nebraska-Kearney stands No. 31 in the country.

"Now that we have reached this point where the race is only just days away, the rankings don't matter," said Hendee, the team's No. 2 runner for most of the year. "Our fate is within our own hands on Saturday."

"We have the talent, we have put the work in, we have the team chemistry and it's going to be a matter of whether or not we want to take this thing or not," he added. "It's nerve-racking and it's refreshing to know that for the first time all season our ranking in this conference is entirely up to us."

Fort Hays has won one conference title -- in women's golf last spring -- since it switched to the MIAA seven-plus years ago.

In cross country, the best chance came with an experienced men's team in 2008, but the Tigers finished fourth.

"It's always great when you have a chance to compete at the conference meet," coach Jason McCullough said. "It doesn't happen all the time. Even some of the perennial favorites have down years as well, so it's really exciting to be in the mix. It also makes you a little bit more nervous or a little bit more on edge. I tend to get a little less sleep this time of year."

FHSU, helped by Hendee, has retooled the last three seasons. Hendee said he feels privileged to be a part of the success and has enjoyed the runners McCullough has recruited and signed.

"He has done nothing but recruit good guy after good guy after good guy," Hendee said. "So not only are we set up for success this year, but the success that they are going to have in years to come."

Sophomore Cory Keehn, Hendee and senior Tanner Christensen, all of whom have earned all-MIAA honors in the past, should finish in the top 10 and could compete for the individual title. That remains a question mark, too. University of Central Missouri's Laban Sialo, the conference's and region's top runner last year, hasn't run this season. McCullough is uncertain if Sialo will run Saturday.

"It kind of depends on how the race plays out, because Cory is a great front runner but Alex and Tanner have amazing finishes," McCullough said. "If there is a big pack and it doesn't go out extremely fast, there is a chance for them to finish it off. But I think that Cory is a little bit better front runner than the other two. If the pace is hot from the get go, I think he has got a chance to stay with them from the start."

Keehn, a deeply religious person, enjoyed a terrific freshman year. He finished third overall, one second behind Christensen, at the home meet. Keehn, Hendee and Christensen went 2-5-6 at the previous meet, Sept. 28 at Emporia State.

Christensen has battled through numerous injuries in the last 18 months. He has suffered lower leg problems, stress fractures reactions and a staph infection.

"Cory is a unique individual," Hendee said. "I don't think that I will ever meet another person like him in my lifetime. He has got a drive that I didn't even know a person could have. There literally is no try, there is no can't with Cory. It's just 'Let's go do it,' and it's been very refreshing."

For the team to compete for a title, McCullough believes four to five runners must be in the top 20 to 24. Garden City Community College transfers Michael Wolf and Chris Ramsgard, junior Isaac Mills sophomores Jonny Bernasky and Nathan Purdue have rounded out the top group.

"Some meets I've looked at where I think we could have beat them, and then some meets it looks like they are going to be better than us," McCullough said of Missouri Southern and SBU. "I think it is going to be very close between those three teams, and then you throw in Northwest Missouri."

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