Olivia Willett has helped elevate the Simon Fraser women's cross-country team to the No. 1-ranking in the West Region heading into Saturday's GNAC championship races at St. Martin's University in Lacey Washington. (Photo property of WWU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Cross Country

As Simon Fraser cross-country hits the post-season trail in full stride at GNACs championships, forecast calls for mud with a chance of gold!

BURNABY — When the Simon Fraser’s men’s and women’s cross-country teams take to the trails Saturday morning for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship races at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., one thing will be abundantly clear.

Despite the atmospheric forecasts calling for rain, rain and more rain, an historic opportunity exists along the way to extract gold from what could well be a course oozing in mud.

It has been that kind of a season for head coach Brit Townsend’s teams.

While its competitive schedule has not been as heavy as in past seasons, a return to the trails following 2020’s cancelled campaign has seen both SFU teams rank in the upper reaches of the West Region, in addition to varying levels of representation within the NCAA D2 national poll.

Add to that the presence of bonafide, race-tested No. 1 runners in Olivia Willett and Aaron Ahl, and Simon Fraser has a chance to not only annex its first women’s GNAC title since 2014, but to also win its first men’s conference title over its decade-plus existence as an NCAA program.

Heading into Saturday, the SFU women are not only 3-0 in their races this season, they sit No. 1 in the West Region and No. 9 nationally.

The men, top-three finishers in each of their three races, are No. 3 in the West Region, one spot behind Western Washington, and 22nd nationally.

Yet when you’ve prepped as many teams for big races as Townsend has over the years, you know just like a football coach knows, how much the elements can play a role in final outcomes.

“The weather is going to be brutal this weekend, and pouring rain and mud is something that can be an equalizer,” she warns. “I think it will be more competitive than you think. There are no givens here.”

And that means SFU runners, despite all of their successes this season, will have to be prepared for a messy battle.

Simon Fraser head coach Brit Townsend knows the weather could a big factor in Saturday’s GNAC championship races. (Photo property of SFU Athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

On the women’s side, Willett has turned in a season of finishes thus far which ranks alongside the best in program history, and that is saying something when you’re talking about a program whose pedigree includes recent middle-distance Olympians like current assistant coach Jessica Brockerville, and Lindsay Butterworth.

The senior from PoCo-Riverside opened her season with a victory at the San Francisco State Invitational back on Sept. 10, and she’s followed it up with second place showings at Western Oregon’s Mike Johnson Classic on Sept. 24, and Western Washington’s Bill Roe Classic on Oct. 9 in Bellingham.

And on Saturday, she’ll line up alongside Western Oregon’s Luiz Garcea, the only Div. 2 runner to beat her this season. Garcea won on her home course over six kilometres (21:46.4), besting Willett by six full seconds.

There’s also two other factors brewing from SFU’s perspective: Alaska-Anchorage senior Nancy Jeptoo, the conference’s top returning runner from the 2019, and the fact that Simon Fraser has not raced against the Seawolves this season.

“(Alaska Anchorage) is always good, but they are notoriously better at the end of the season,” began Townsend.

“I said to Olivia ‘Don’t discount her,’” Townsend explained of Keptoo. “And of course Olivia needs to look to (WOU’s Garcea). She is big and strong and was quite a bit ahead of her when we raced at Western Oregon. But I think Olivia looks fitter then maybe I have ever seen her, and I am excited to see what she can do because I know she loves that challenge.”

SFU’s core has also been as impressive, led by senior Alison Andrews-Paul, the D-1 transfer from Baylor and native of New Zealand, who has set an aggressive pace for her teammates early, and who took third behind Willett at the WOU meet.

Juniors Megan Roxby (West Vancouver) and Emily Chilton (New Westminster), along with surging freshman Kate Cameron, a freshman from Nanaimo District Secondary who was SFU’s third across the finish line in Bellingham (11th overall) have also been a vital part of the team’s top scoring group this season.

The balance now being supplied by the talent and depth of the men’s program, however, is the most substantial story within cross-country’s overall development as an NCAA program.

Simon Fraser finished second at the last GNAC championship race, back in 2019, but were outscored by Western Washington team by a dominant 38-76 score.

Simon Fraser’s Aaron Ahl , a winner at the season-opening San Francisco State Invitational, has not lost to a Div. 2 runner all season. (Photo provided courtesy SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Yet with the Vikings seeded at No. 2 in the region this season, just one spot ahead of SFU, it’s anyone’s race this season.

And as Ahl, the top returning finisher from the 2019 race (19th overall) has taken the next steps in his running career as both lead runner and a team leader, so too has a men’s program aiming to win its first-ever conference title.

“We definitely have a leader in Aaron… a great leader with a great ethic and he’s been super consistent,” notes Townsend of the senior from Calgary’s William Aberhart High.

Ahl opened his season with a victory over eight kilometres at the San Francisco State Invitational in a personal-best 24:30.6 then finished third at both Western Oregon and Western Washington.

Impressively, he has beaten every Div. 2 runner he has faced this season.

Charlie Dannatt, the UBC transfer from North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary, who back in his senior year of high school (2017) smashed the 42-year-old meet record in the 3,000 m by six seconds (8:15.93) at the B.C. High school Championships, has been a huge addition for SFU.

Scott Arndt (freshman, Waterloo (Ont.) Collegiate), Sebastian Brinkman (sophomore, Bellevue (Wash.)-Interlake) and Ephrem Mekkonen (sophomore, Burnaby South) have been among the group which has helped raise the program to its current heights.

Back in 2019, SFU’s Olivia Willett took on the snows of a late-fall Montana day when the GNAC title race was staged in Billings. (Photo property of MSU-Billings athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

The men will open the proceedings Saturday with a 10 a.m. start time to its 10-kilometre run. The women will follow at 11 a.m. and cover eight kilometres.

“Our goal is to take each race at face value,” said Townsend following practice Thursday, not only noting the potential for rain and mud in Lacey, but well remembering the 2019 race when all competitors awoke to snow at Montana State-Billings. “After this week, we’ll re-group and look at what is next.”

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