Blue Hawks cross country on national radar
In the past, the Dickinson State men and women's cross country teams were just a blip on the radar.
But since head coach Michael Nekuda took over, things have changed and the teams want the recognition they deserve. So when the preseason rankings were revealed, Nekuda was pleased.
"We are on the radar this year and it showed by having our preseason rank of 17th," Nekuda said. "That's a great sign because now we can only move up from there."
To live up to the expectations, the teams have been diligently training by running twice a day, at least three or four times a week. Due to the hot weather, primary practices start at 6 a.m. in order to properly focus on interval work.
Most of the runners had been at work before practices even started. Last season, senior Denis Patrick struggled with some back injuries which kept him from running as many miles as he would have liked. But over the summer Patrick ran 100 miles a week for about five or six weeks to build up his base.
"I always say it takes your summer to make your November. It's not like they sat around all summer they worked extremely hard. We had a bunch of women that worked really hard," Nekuda said. "We had a lot of people running this summer and that's the first step, you build that base and you keep working off it with workouts during the season."
Nekuda has set high standards for each team this season starting with the Frontier Conference championships. On the men's side, Nekuda is determined for the team to win the conference championship as well as the NAIA National Championship. The men return all but one runner this season, giving the Blue Hawks the advantage of experience. Sophomore Dante Carter and Patrick both qualified for nationals last season and hope to not only return as individuals but also as a team.
"As a team, we have very high goals this season and if you look at last season, it may look improbable. But we have grown tremendously and we're ready to surprise some people," Carter said. "One race in particular, Roy Griak Invitational, we got demolished but that's because of our own personal downfalls. I think if we go back there as a team especially with our added strength and experience we can do some crazy things there."
On the women's side, Nekuda understands this is a rebuilding year and just wants his team to place in the conference and national championships. Last season, there were only four runners and individual times and wins was more of a focus.
"Last year, we only had about four girls by the end of the season and we had some other girls fill in for conference," sophomore Shelby Snare said. "This year, we're working on teamwork and coming together."
This season the roster has doubled to eight runners with the addition of some talented newcomers. But the one girl that Nekuda is most excited about and who has left an early impression is freshman Meleah Leiss, a graduate of Dickinson High.
"Holy cow," Nekuda said. "Just from the two weeks that I've seen her, she's going to do great things."
In order to become competitive this season, returners like junior Stormie Sickler have been concentrating on strength training, in order to run in the best shape possible.
"The main thing I'm trying to focus on and have the girls be focused on is a lot of core work," said Sickler, who is also a DHS graduate. "Naturally someone can be fast but if their core isn't strong, it makes them a little slower. So I think, if we have a strong core, we'll be able to do that."
The Blue Hawks get ready for the beginning of their season with the second DSU Twilight Time Trial today at the Henry Biesiot Activities Center. Nekuda started the time trial last year to assess where his runners are at and help each of them prepare for the start of the season on an individual basis. The women start at 8:30 p.m. and the men start around 8:45 p.m.
This year, there will be a food drive for the Amen Food Pantry where donations will be accepted. Dish soap, laundry soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet paper are some of the items that will be accepted.
The Blue Hawk's first official meet of the season is the Black Hills State Invitational on Sept. 13 in Spearfish, S.D. With the amount of running and hard work both teams have been putting in already, Nekuda is looking forward to see how his runners will perform.
"I can't say enough about the guys and the gals I have. Awesome people, doing the right things and working hard for me," Nekuda said. "They're the reason I have a job, I love coaching for them."