Cross Country "family" enjoys success

Members of this year’s Mount Mercy men’s and women’s cross country teams were still about a decade from being born when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1979 World Series championship.

The Pirates, an affable group led by Willie Stargell and Dave Parker, romped to the title with their theme song “We Are Family” blasting away over the speakers at Three Rivers Stadium and inside the team’s clubhouse.

This year’s Mustang runners may want to go back and give that disco hit recorded by Sister Sledge a good listen. A family has been assembled on the Mount Mercy campus. “I wasn’t going to go out for cross country in college because I wasn’t that great in high school, but I liked track a lot so I just did it to stay in shape and meet the people,” said Erin Behan, a junior from Independence, Iowa. “We’re a family, we talk outside of practice, we hang out outside of practice.”

Matt Clarke, a junior from Clarence and North Cedar High School, has also been made to feel like a member of one big, extended family.

“It’s helped us, or it’s helped me anyway, get through school,” Clarke said. “It’s helped a lot just having the guys there for support. We always see each other in the library, and that helps a lot. We hang out with each other on off days, and we’re definitely a family, that’s for sure.”

The family that hangs together is also enjoying a lot of success together. The Mustang women won their fourth straight Midwest Collegiate Conference championship in the fall and qualified for the NAIA national meet for the third time in school history. The men’s team finished second at the league race but was respresented at nationals by Clarke and sophomores Mike Miroux from Spring Valley, Ill., and Keith Terry from Cedar Rapids.

The overseer of the two programs is Coach Ryan Scheckel, a 2001 Mount Mercy graduate who took over the cross country and men’s and women’s track programs a year after graduation. He didn’t inherit disarray by any means, but did set in a motion a building process that has led the cross country teams to new heights.

“When I took over, it was on an interim basis … and I would say the only real difference between now and then is just the size our team,” Scheckel said. “If you talk to alumni, the attitude of the athletes, the feeling and the meaning they get when they come here and participate, I think it’s probably the same.”

The women’s team is led by senior Chelsea Kvidera from Traer, Iowa, a product of the outstanding cross country and track & field programs at North Tama High School. Kvidera immediately bought into Scheckel’s system and has been a dependable mainstay for four years.

“It’s a very structured program. Practices are usually laid out for us for the entire season, so we know where we need to be at what time,” Kvidera said.

“Schedule-wise, it helps us to schedule school easier and we can focus on cross country or track that day at a certain time, and then turn around and go do our studies.”

Behan, junior Kori Yotter from Wapello, Iowa, and freshmen Taylor Helms and Esther Rono joined Kvidera as top finishers most of the season. The women’s team received votes in the NAIA Cross Country Coaches’ Poll at times last season.

“I expected us to be good, but I didn’t expect us to get national votes. I think that was kind of an unexpected thing,” Kvidera said. “I knew we were doing really well, but our conference was really competitive this year, so getting national votes just put our expectations higher.”

“It’s great, especially the team chemistry,” Miroux said. “We have a pretty close relationship with each other. That helps a lot to get through some of our training days.”

Training and offseason work is what helps these teams flourish. Miroux said he generally runs 70 to 80 miles a week.

During the course of the regular season, the Mount Mercy runners compete not only against other NAIA schools from the MCC, but also NCAA Division I, II, and III schools. The Iowa Conference and its nine Division III schools offer the Mustangs very good competition right outside their front door.

“These student athletes are, by far, the most solid teams I’ve coached,” Scheckel said. “If you look at these teams and where they’ve placed as a team, we’ve never been this consistent. Obviously, in a couple of the big meets it’s always going to be hard to score well as a team. The competition is so high.

“We’ve just done a very good job of being consistent and I hope that speaks for what they’re doing as far as off-season in the summer, and hopefully that means — as far as recruiting — we’re bringing in some kids who are not only talented but who want to improve and be part of our team.”