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PELLA — After a couple of seasons of relying on youth, the Central College men’s cross country team has a veteran cast to lead it through an uncertain season.

The Dutch finished in the top two in the league from 2012-15 with a pair of titles but were sixth in 2017 and 2018 before some young talent propelled them to fourth last season. Coach Joe Dunham is hopeful the ascent will continue as five starters return, although it’s still a young squad that will navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Dunham said. “But I’m excited about just bringing our team back and having that close-knit culture.”

Dunham’s runners are thrilled that they’ll get to compete at all, albeit with an abbreviated schedule. Many college cross country teams had their seasons shelved.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the American Rivers Conference in making every effort to serve our student-athletes and doing it in a way that will hopefully keep everyone extremely safe.

“We’re very excited and feel very fortunate.”

The lineup is bolstered by some additional newcomers.

“I’m very excited about our freshman class,” Dunham said. “We’ve got six guys coming in so it’s a little bit of a smaller class than what we’ve had in the past. But we’ve got some good, high-quality runners.”

Senior Nate Sanders (senior, Waukee) was Central’s No. 1 runner in the final four meets of last season and is unlikely to be dislodged from that spot. The team MVP recorded four top-10 finishes, earning all-league honors in placing seventh at the America Rivers meet. Sanders gained NCAA Division III All-Central Region distinction as well, finishing 29th at the regional meet in Waverly.

“Nathan made just a huge jump competitively last year,” Dunham said. “It was fun to see him really progress. I believe we’re going to see great things out of him.”

Sanders will serve as a team co-captain along with Jerry Lotz (senior, Yokosuka, Japan, Nile C. Kinnick HS).

The lineup order tightens up after that. Will De Haan (junior, DeWitt, Central DeWitt HS) and Caleb Silver (sophomore, Conrad, BCLUW HS) were consistently near the top.

De Haan was in Central’s top three in five of six meets with two top-10 finishes before placing 31st in the conference and 42nd in the regional.

“He’s going to be a frontrunner for us,” Dunham said. “He has really turned into a distance runner. Coming into Central, his passion was really the middle distances and he had a phenomenal indoor season and was just on the cusp of qualifying for the national meet. But he has really embraced the idea of being a distance runner and we’re seeing that continue through the summer.”

Silver saw his times steadily drop during his rookie season, placing 18th at the conference meet and 63rd in the regional.

“Caleb was our freshman of the year and was an outstanding runner,” Dunham said. “He’s taken another step since he’s left campus and has been training at home. He’s really ramped up his training. We will look for him to be a top-five guy for us and a leader as well.”

Easton Sabala (junior, Wheatland, Hermitage HS) was in Central’s top five in four meets last year and was 42nd in the conference meet.

“Easton continues to battle injuries but has, from what I know this spring and summer, been very healthy and much stronger,” Dunham said. “Running is going really well for him. We will also look for him to be a top-five guy for us.”

Cutler Owens (junior, Runnells, Southeast Polk HS) was in the top five twice and placed fourth in the league.

“We’ve seen him make a dramatic jump,” Dunham said. “His indoor season last year was where we really saw him improve. He’s really committed to the training and I think will be a guy that’s contending for a top-seven spot.”

A newcomer, junior transfer Thatcher Krob (Lisbon), is likely to be heard from.

“He transferred in last semester and ran track for us but he’s a true distance runner and so I’m excited to have him for cross country this year for the first time,” Dunham said.

Among the others lurking are Lotz, sophomores Adam Sylvia (Rochester, Mass., Old Rochester HS), Jack Orengo (Naperville, Ill., Neuqua Valley HS) and junior Jack Sagan (Riverside, Ill., Riverside-Brookfield HS).

Lotz and Sanders are the squad’s only seniors.

“Jerry is a great team leader,” Dunham said. “People really respect him. He’s a hard worker. He’s always been right in that 6-7-8 area so he’ll be on the cusp of being in the top seven and it just kind of depends on how he progresses from there.”

Dunham expects Sylvia and Orengo to make big strides from their rookie campaigns.

“Adam Sylvia had a relatively quiet freshman year in cross country but then kind of came onto the scene during track,” Dunham said. “He’ll definitely be in contention for a top-seven spot.

“Jack Orengo will be a top-seven contender, too. He’s put in a good summer and I think he’ll do great.” Dunham won’t be surprised if at least two freshmen crack the top seven. Noah Jorgenson (Sidney), Logan Berg (Baxter) and Jackson Edens (Tipton) bring lofty high school credentials.

Also trying to make a move are juniors Cameron Coles (Farley, Western Dubuque HS) and Edison Wieg (Nevada) and sophomores Evan Armitage (West Des Moines, Valley HS), Marcus DeVries (Kalispell, Mont., Glacier HS), Nathan Larson (Britt, Garner-Hayfield-Ventura HS), Jacob Sanders (Nevada) and Ian Thomson (Baxter).

With students leaving campus in mid-March and the outdoor track and field campaign canceled, an extended off-season has created a little more mystery heading into the fall. But Dunham thinks his runners will be ready.

“I think we’ve done a great job,” he said. “They’ve been training pretty hard. We continued our training all the way through the outdoor (track and field) season with time trials and workouts and saw some really good things, actually. We tried giving them opportunities to do things where they really had something to train for.

“We really tried to improve our overall fitness level and our strength. We put a major emphasis on that ever since everybody went home.”

Three of the five scheduled meets on the conference-only slate will be on Central’s highly regarded on-campus course, including the conference championships Nov. 7. Three triangulars will precede the finale.

“It’s kind of an old-school schedule, where we used to have duals and triangulars,” Dunham said. “We’re kind of getting back to that this season so it’s kind of a fun, different approach. We’ve got to run fast every time we compete.”

The Dutch are nearing a return to contender status yet conference foes yield ground grudgingly, Dunham said. Last year’s top three of Wartburg College, Luther College and Loras College remains favored to retain those positions, Dunham said. Central was fourth last year, narrowly ahead of still-capable Nebraska Wesleyan University with Simpson College improving as well.

“Trying to compete with those teams is challenging,” Dunham said. “We have a lot of respect for them. My goal is to be in the top four, even with a young team.”

It’s a shortened season but it still matters.

“There’s a conference title on the line at the end of the season so we need to get ready for that.” Dunham said.

But while Dunham hasn’t even seen his runners since March, he’s sensing good things about this year’s Dutch.

“I think the team culture is very good right now,” he said. “I think there’s an excitement for the incoming freshmen and there’s a big belief in the training. They know it works and they’re buying in. I think they are seeing the potential of what we could be.”

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