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Courtesy Photo by Dickinson State Sports Information Department Dickinson State head cross country coach Mike Nekuda, left, watches and waits before the start of a race earlier this season. Nekuda's Blue Hawk men ended the regular season ranked No. 23 in the NAIA nd sent three to the NAIA National Championships, along with one women's runner.

DSU 2nd-year cross country coach has team racing back into contention

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Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Mike Nekuda is a driven young coach.

The 28-year-old in his second year at the helm of the Dickinson State cross country program makes no bones about the aspirations he has for the program.

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"Let's just put it this way: I didn't take this job because I thought we would suck the next five years," Nekuda said bluntly. "I took the job because I knew there was a great opportunity here at Dickinson State University."

Nekuda's Blue Hawks are on the way up.

The men's team qualified three runners for Saturday's NAIA national championship race after sending just one last year. Junior Brittany Young is DSU's only woman running at the meet, though she is back there for the second consecutive season.

"There was so much improvement, especially on the men's side and on the women's side," Young said. "I saw a lot of my team gain confidence in his coaching and ourselves. It's going to do some big things in the next couple years."

The women's 5K national championship race begins at 10:30 a.m. local time Saturday with the men's 8K scheduled to follow at 11:45 a.m.

While DSU's third-place finish at the Frontier Conference meet kept it from sending a full men's team to the national meet -- Nekuda's goal for the team this season -- he's pleased with the performances its three national qualifiers, juniors Abdi Ismail and Denis Patrick and freshman Dante Carter, as well as the rest of the team.

The men finished the regular season ranked No. 23 in the NAIA, down from No. 17 in the previous ratings and below two teams they ran against and handedly defeated -- Great Plains Athletic Conference champion Concordia (Neb.) and runner-up Morningside (Iowa).

The DSU men hadn't been ranked since the 2007 season, when they came into the national tournament at No. 21 and finished in 21st place.

"I really think we should be there as a team," Nekuda said. "I think we got short-changed by a few people and that's not even just because it's my team."

The Blue Hawks will get there one day soon, the runners said, and they point to the team's training as the reason why.

"In the future, we can learn from our mistakes and get better and better and look for the positive ways in trying to be better as a team," said Ismail, who was fourth at the Frontier Conference meet. "We are definitely on the rise."

Recruiting talent that can compete at a national level has been a priority since Nekuda arrived at DSU. As a runner for Black Hills State, he helped his team to the 2007 national runner-up finish and a Dakota Athletic Conference title.

The men's team will add two-time Class B state champion Kenny Wells to the fold next year. He redshirted this season and competed well as an unattached runner.

Be it through recruiting, offseason training -- 80 miles a week outside of the season is the objective for the men's runners -- or old fashioned camaraderie, Nekuda wants to see the Blue Hawks thrive soon.

"I don't plan on being a team on the verge every single year," Nekuda said. "We want to be one of those top-tier teams every single year."

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