Montana Western runners head to NAIA National Championships

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, April 7, 2021

O'Connor (left) and Lutz

The competitions proved relatively sparse this past year for the University of Montana Western’s cross country team, with many meets canceled or downsized due to the pandemic.

But this weekend, the Bulldogs’ will send some of their top runners to where the competition will no doubt prove fiercest—the NAIA National Championship in Iowa.

UMW’s men will get represented in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by Luke Lutz while Eireann O’Connor solos for the Lady Bulldogs, who finished the season ranked no. 25 in the NAIA, barely missing out on a team spot at nationals.

“We are confident Eireann will do well,” said UMW Head Coach Dylan Zitzer of O’Connor, who earned All-American honors her junior year with a 25th place finish at the national meet in Washington state.

“Last year, coming back from the national meet as an All American, he said, ‘Okay, what are you going to do next season?’ O’Connor recalled of a conversation she had with Zitzer following the most recent NAIA national meet, back in November 2019.

“That made me hungry for the next goal,” recalled O’Connor, who credits Zitzer with helping motivate her to excel even further than her own vigorously competitive nature might drive her.

“I am competitive with myself. He helps me direct my competiveness,” said O’Connor.

A sophomore, Lutz also competed at the last NAIA national cross country meet after improving steadily during his freshman campaign and finishing 14th at the Frontier Conference meet.

The Frenchtown product displayed his tenacity again this past year by continuing to train and improve during a season of distractions and unprecedented challenges.

“Just staying healthy all year and training hard took a lot of extra dedication,” said Zitzer, who will be returning this weekend to a Seminole Valley Cross Country Course in Cedar Rapids where his team gained glory in 2018.

“The course is flat and fast, right on the river there in Cedar Rapids,” said Zitzer, of the course on which UMW’s Mindy Kaufman earned All-American distinction in 2018.

“We are really happy to have the chance to go there and hope we can do Montana Western proud.”