Bulldogs grab four All-Conference spots at league meet

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Leader of the pack

UMW cross country star Eireann O’Connor (white shirt) leads a group of runners at last week’s Frontier Conference Championship meet in Havre, where she earned second place in the women’s race. Casey Parrott/UMW photo

They couldn’t ever be sure if they’d get a fall season, or how long it might actually last once it got going.

But the University of Montana Western men’s and women’s cross country teams still managed to save much of their best for last with their performances at last week’s Frontier Conference Championship meet in Havre.

The 18th–ranked Bulldog women grabbed second as a team behind only Carroll College’s Lady Saints, who went into the competition ranked ninth in the entire NAIA, while the short-handed UMW men also got solid efforts from all their participants to place fourth as a team at the league championship meet.

“I wasn’t happy at first because I thought we could have done better,” said UMW Cross Country Head Coach Dylan Zitzer on Saturday.

“But having 24 hours to think about it, I definitely feel a little better about it,” said Zitzer of the final 2020 effort of his teams, which persevered through the autumn campaign despite perpetual pandemic disruptions to its training and roster.

“I am just really proud of how we made it through the fall. We had to deal with a lot. It was a tough season, and I’m proud of how our runners got through it— of the maturity they showed as a group by not complaining, but just taking on the challenges.”

Through rain, snow, a bad cold and a meet schedule shrouded in darkness and doubt, UMW’s Eireann O’Connor continued making her rounds of cross country courses through the fall season—right through to the conference meet on Friday, when she surged late to place second.

“The women’s race went out really slow, so Eireann tucked in and waited to make her move. She was in fourth place and seemed gassed with about six hundred yards to go,” recalled Zitzer of O’Connor, who was forced to adjust her usual approach to races.

“But she rallied and really kicked it in over the last few hundred yards. She just ran out of space, or I think she could have taken first. Eireann was so close to winning,” said Zitzer of O’Connor, who finished the 5k women’s race in 19:10—just three seconds behind Carroll’s Reghan Worley.

“Eireann is a really competitive athlete who is always going to get the best out of herself,” said Zitzer of the soft-spoken, hard-working senior from Jackson, WY.

For her near-winning effort Friday afternoon at the league meet hosted by MSU-Northern on Prairie Farms Golf Course, O’Connor gained, for the second straight season, a spot on the Frontier’s All-Conference women’s team and an invitation to the NAIA national meet next spring in Iowa—as did UMW’s Matt Wilson on the men’s side.

“Matt has great confidence and maturity,” said Zitzer of his top men’s runner, who covered the 8k men’s tract at Friday’s conference meet in 26:53 to finish fourth.

“He is still just scrapping surface of his potential,” said Zitzer of the Hamilton HS grad with at least another year of college eligibility left.

For the second straight year, Western’s Luke Lutz scrapped off the rust of his oft-stalled regular season to flash his talent and gain an All-Conference spot on Friday, when he finished tenth in the men’s race.

“Luke Lutz has been banged up with injuries all season,” said Zitzer of the sophomore, who also rode a conference meet kick to gain a spot on last season’s All-Conference team.

“He had the confidence he could do it after last year, and gained more confidence the more he got to train this year.”

Lady Bulldog Marley May overcame similar difficulties to gain the same place in the conference women’s race, placing tenth with a time 19:48 that also garnered her an All-Conference designation.

“Marley was in the same boat as Luke for a lot of the season. To get on the All-Conference team after all she’s been through is pretty amazing,” said Zitzer, who saw several of his other underclassmen emerge at Friday’s conference meet, nearly as impressively as Lutz did in 2019.

Junior transfer Aidan Vlasaty translated his increasingly impressive training runs into a 20th in the conference meet populated with the top runners from five Frontier programs, while UMW teammate Joe Lamb grabbed 24th and Lamb’s fellow Bulldog freshman Joel Lavergne took 29th.

“Joel had a good summer and is really starting to figure things out. Joe Lamb ran that course five minutes faster than he did when he we went to the Frontier Preview meet there,” said Zitzer of Lamb’s dramatic improvement since he ran in the 2020 season-opening meet in Havre in September.

“He’s a talented kid who had a rough go of it this year, but he put some serious time into training and every day was another step in the right direction for him.”

Another UMW freshman, Jodi Cameron also continued to improve and promise great things for the future by finishing 14th in the women’s race on Friday, when the rest of the Lady Bulldogs participating also placed in the Top 35, including sophomore Elizabeth Varner (16th), senior Emma Lehr (19th) sophomore sisters Mason Basely (25th) and Morgan Basely (17th), and frosh Sarah Passey (35th).

“I was pretty happy with how everyone on the women’s side did. It’s a young group, and we’re excited to see how much progress they can all make going into spring,” said Zitzer, who could potentially get all his runners back for the spring and even for the 2021 fall season, with the NAIA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility last week due to the pandemic disruptions.

“Hopefully, everyone re turns,” said Zitzer, whose women’s team, currently ranked 18th in the NAIA, retains a good shot at qualifying for the national meet as a team for the second straight season.

“We are right on the cusp right now,” said the sixth-year UMW head coach, who hopes to schedule a cross country meet in the new year with another nationally ranked opponent to bolster the team’s chances of competing as a squad again at nationals in April.

“Getting through this fall, with all the challenges, was such a big step. We hope to continue to grow. But this is when things get more difficult, going into the winter, when it’s tougher to continue being as motivated to train,” said Zitzer, who has coached almost 20 All-Conference runners, helped his college team at Concordia College qualify for three consecutive NAIA meets and led his Beaverhead County High School cross country team to a 2006 state championship.

“That’s when you really see who you can be in this sport.”