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PELLA — Looking to add a glossy finish to a modified and sometimes bumpy season, youthful Central College men’s and women’s cross country teams close with the American Rivers Conference Championships on their home course Saturday.

The women’s race starts at 2 p.m. on the Central College Cross Country Course on the west end of campus, with the men’s race at 3 p.m.

“We’re excited to host the conference championships and to get to represent Central College,” coach Joe Dunham said.

It’s Central’s third home meet of the season, the most home appearances for the Dutch since 1982, when the squad staged home meets at the Pella Golf and Country Club.

Restricted access—Due to health protocols, access to the races is restricted to participants, working staff, meet officials and a limited number of spectators. Each participating athlete is permitted to designate two spectators to receive wrist bands, distributed at the lone entry point on the north side of the course. The entry on the east side of the course near the campus soccer fields will be closed. No one is permitted on the course without a wrist band and face coverings are required for all spectators. Parking is available off of Fifield Road north of the course.

Making their move—After four straight fifth-place league finishes, a Central women’s squad without a senior is eyeing a move towards the top. The Dutch haven’t placed above fourth since 2010.

While Central was second in each of a series of four league triangulars this fall, Dunham remains hopeful that his young team will better last year’s showing. Wartburg College is the defending champ after ending a three-year run by Nebraska Wesleyan University.

“The goal for us is in the top three,” he said. “That was our goal going in and it’s still our goal. But I know that it’s a great league and it’s going to be a challenge.”

Freshman Caroline McMartin (Pella) posted a season-best 23:24.2 in the Dan Huston Triangular at Waverly Oct. 10, as she bolted into 15th on Central’s all-time list of 6,000-meter runners. Meanwhile junior Mari Stein (Okoboji) was the team’s top finisher in two earlier meets. She was already tied for 17th on the all-time list with a 23:29 clocking a year ago. She finished in 23:34 this season behind McMartin at Waverly.

McMartin and Stein are both hoping to crack the top 15, which would give them all-conference status. Stein was 31st in the league a year ago.

Other regulars in Central’s top five include freshman Lindsey Davidson (Northwood, Northwood-Kensett HS), sophomore Lauren Coon (Oskaloosa) and freshman Kate Hoogensen (Ankeny, Centennial HS).

“We do have a few injuries,” Dunham said. “We just need to get through this weekend.”

The Dutch men’s squad expects to return to full strength after missing most of its lineup due to health protocols in an Oct. 24 triangular with the University of Dubuque and Nebraska Wesleyan University at Pella.

“It’s been a challenge, but we’re trying to look past that and focus on the task at hand,” Dunham said. “I’m really hoping that we have good performances this weekend.

Three runners have held the top spot in the season’s four meets thus far. Senior Nate Sanders (Waukee) has the fastest 8,000-meter performance, finishing in 25:29 at Waverly Oct. 10. Sophomore Caleb Silver (Conrad, BCLUW HS) was close behind in 25:30, slipping into 20th on the team’s all-time fastest 8,000-meter runners and was the team’s top finisher in a triangular at Storm Lake Sept. 26. Sanders is tied for 17th on the all-time list with a 25:23 clocking in 2019. They’ll be aiming for top-15 finishes and all-conference status. Sanders was 29th in last year’s conference meet.

With both of those runners sidelined Oct. 24, freshman Noah Jorgenson (Sidney) led the team and has been in the team’s top five three times in his rookie season. Junior Will DeHaan (DeWitt, Central DeWitt HS) was in Central’s top three in the first three meets and junior Cutler Owens (Runnells, Southeast Polk HS) is a team top-five regular.

Central was fourth a year ago after sixth-place efforts in the preceding two seasons. The Dutch won league titles in 2012 and 2013 and finished second the following two years. With peak showings, Dunham thinks Central can put together a top-three team finish. Wartburg has won the last two team titles and is favored this week, Dunham said. But he expects the remaining top spots to be hotly contested.

“I’m really hoping that we have good performances this weekend,” he said.

Records—The men will be shooting for the league-meet 8,000-meter record of 24:59 set by Keith Solverson of Wartburg in 2005 while the Central course record of 24:13.4 was set in an NCAA Division III regional championship meet in 2014 by Grant Wintheiser of St. Olaf College (Minn.).

Wartburg’s Missy Buttry set the 6,000-meter league-meet women’s mark of 20:15 at Central in 2004, also establishing the women’s course record.

Season capstone—Traditionally the NCAA Division III Central Region Championships and national meet loom ahead after the conference meet, but with the cancelation of the NCAA’s fall sport championships, the modified schedule wraps up Saturday.

“Everybody’s going to be tapered and primed and ready to go,” Dunham said.

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