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Keene State Runners Set for NCAA Cross Country Championships

KEENE, N.H. 11/16/04 - A work in progress all season, the Keene State College men’s cross country team appears to be peaking at just the right time as it heads out to Wisconsin-Eau Claire for Saturday’s NCAA Division III championship race.

It has not been an easy season for the Owl harriers, who finished eighth at last year’s championship. After ruling the region for several years (1999-2002) and finishing as high as second in consecutive national meets (1999 and 2000), Keene State has slipped. They go to the start line at the Whitetail Golf Course in Colfax, Wis., ranked 17th nationally and third in New England.

While past teams have gone to the NCAAs with more talent and higher expectations, few can match the 2004 team for its ability to overcome obstacles. Enduring the loss of former All-American Dave Raymond and a series of nagging injuries that eventually took Mike Burleson out of the line-up, the Owls still managed to place third at last week’s regional meet and earn their eighth straight trip to the NCAA championships.

“I think it’s the best coaching job Pete (Thomas) has ever done,” said Dave Bridgewater, the team’s top runner. “We owe a lot of our success to him.”

“I’m very pleased with this group,” said Thomas. “They worked hard to get to this point. But I still feel they haven’t run their best race yet.”

A returning All-American, Bridgewater should once again be among the front- runners in the race. “I’m not going to make any predictions,” said the senior from Unionville, Conn. “If I perform up to my ability, I can run with the top runners in the country.”

The rest of KSC’s pack will try to overcome a lack of experience. In a group that includes Ryan Gough (Billerica, Mass.), Joseph Hegarty (Springfield, Mass.), Patrick Ard (Kingston, N.H.), and Matthew Haley (Middleton, Mass.), only Gough and Haley know what it’s like to run at an NCAA championship.

According to Thomas, there’s a difference between having experience and being successful. “I’ll try to take the pressure off them and tell them that their hard job was getting out there,” he said. “Now they can relax and run their race and not let the pressure of the meet weigh on them.”

Hoping for a top-10 finish, Thomas feels an eighth-to-12th -place showing is a realistic goal for his team. Going for their third straight title, Calvin (MI.) College, North Central (Ill.) College, and Wisconsin-LaCrossse are expected to be the teams to beat.

Things have not broken the Owls’ way at the nationals the past few years. The 2001 team wilted under the warm temperatures at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. The following year at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minn., KSC had to run without top runner Mark Miller, who got sick the night before the race.

“We’d have some things go wrong at nationals,” Thomas lamented. “It would be nice for things to go right this time.”

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