NCC Cardinals back near top of preseason cross-country rankings
The seeds of this year's rankings-topping North Central College (NCC) men's cross-country team were sown during last season's relative struggles.
The 2015 Cardinals, who were going for the program's fifth national title in seven seasons, were “pretty paper thin,” and injuries made the team thinner, head coach Al Carius told the Will County Gazette. However, some freshmen stepped up late in the season and gave the team some depth as the squad ended up finishing fifth at the NCAA Division III national meet.
That led Carius to label the team “The Phoenix.”
“We were kind of recreating ourself last year,” Carius said. “And I think from last year's experience and last year's culture, we built some momentum that I believe is carrying through, evolutionary-wise, to this year's team with more security, more experience, more confidence.”
Five of the seven NCC runners at the national meet, and eight overall who ran at the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Championships, returned this season, according to NorthCentralCardinals.com. That led to poll voters putting NCC atop the preseason Division III top-25 rankings.
Even with the high spots in this year's rankings, Carius called this year's team a work in progress.
“It's an excellent team and has an awful lot of potential for growth because we're still very, very young in my opinion,” Carius said.
Two seniors – Zach Plank and Ethan Adlfinger – led the squad this year, but after them came a slew of underclassmen. Plank is the anchor of the team, Carius said, and there's no shortage of evidence to back that up. After finishing fourth at the national meet and winning the CCIW Championship last year, Plank already has piled up honors this year, such as being a three-time selection for CCIW Athlete of the Week. He has finished first in two events and third in another through Oct. 13.
Carius also cited Adlfinger as being “rock-solid” up front with Plank and junior Dan O'Keefe as an excellent runner and “great internal leader” who gives consistency to the team.
Carius compared that foundation to a basketball team having a great player, allowing the teammates to fill in around that player.
“I think that's what it really does for us is give us consistency, stability, you know, where the young guys don't have to look and say geez, there's any kind of pressure on us, we just need to kind of fill in,” Carius said.
Carius said experience is where the team needs to improve, with the Cardinals' efforts at the Division III Pre-Nationals on Oct. 1 in Louisville, Kentucky, being a step in that direction. NCC won the team title by claiming six of the top 10 individual places, with Plank and Adlfinger finishing first and second, respectively.
“Our experience down at the national-preview meet was a tremendous growth step for us and a great reinforcement for us, for the workouts that we've had and where we're at at this point,” Carius said. “Up until that point, I don't think there was anything that would jump out at anybody and say hey, wow, this is just an outstanding team. It's a very good team, but I think the national-preview meet in Louisville, Kentucky, really was a great experience and reinforcement to our young athletes in their evolutionary process and this team that we're a great team.”