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

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.

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.

"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."

Dustin Monke

Monke came to The Dickinson Press in July 2006 as the newspaper's sports editor and was hired as its managing editor in March 2013. During his tenure at The Press, Monke has won multiple awards for sports reporting, feature reporting, column writing, page design and photography. He was a key part of The Press winning the North Dakota Newspaper Association's General Excellence and Sweepstakes awards in 2009 and 2012, and oversaw The Press' Sweepstakes and General Excellence wins in 2014, as well as its national first-place honors for Community Leadership in the Inland Daily Press Association and contributed to the first-place Inland award for Investigative Reporting. As the newspaper's editor, he writes an occasional Sunday column, is a member of The Press' Editorial Board, contributes feature stories and breaking news, designs pages, and oversees the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and editorial staff. In his free time, he enjoys watching sports and action movies, exercises whenever his schedule allows, and spends every minute he can with his wife and son.

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