For three straight seasons the Crusader women's cross country team has been building, finishing third at the conference championships each of the last three years. But now, with two of the Mid-Con's 10 fastest runners back and primed for bigger things, the Brown and Gold have their sights set higher; all the way to the top of the Mid-Continent Conference.
Head Coach Mike Straubel's 20th team could be his best, as the third place finishes the last three years are the best for any Crusader team in history. And he returns both the fastest 6K runner in school history and a senior with three straight All-Conference selections behind her.
Laura Rolf (Rochester, Mich./Lutheran Northwest) was named the Mid-Con Newcomer of the Year in 2005 and broke Valpo's 6K record twice as a freshman, first at the Mid-Con Championships where she ran a 22:08.5 and finished fourth in the deep field. Rolf then sped up even further at the NCAA Regional meet, finishing 25th in 22:04.3, and becoming only the second runner in school history to earn All-Great Lakes Regional honors (Collette Liss, who did it twice, is the other). A two-time state champion in high school, Rolf also earned First Team All-Conference honors as a freshman, only the fourth Crusader to be so honored, and can match Tami Long this year as the only two-time First Team All-Conference honoree in school history.
Of course, no Crusader has been on the All-Conference team more times than senior Danielle Nunnelly (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) who landed on the Second Team each of her first three seasons. Also a former Mid-Con Newcomer of the Year, Nunnelly held the 6K record before Rolf broke it last season, and earned a top-ten finish (9th) at the conference championships for the second straight year in 2005.
Valpo is not just a two-horse team, however, as the top four Crusader finishers at the NCAA Regional are also back, including senior Ashley Billstrom (Hales Corner, Wis./Whitnall). Billstrom picked up a pair of top-25 finishes in 2005, including 24th at the Mid-Con Championships when she covered the 6K in 23:47.9. Billstrom enjoyed a highly successful spring last season, winning the Mid-Con title and setting a school record in the 3,000m steeplechase for the track and field team.
Junior Rachael Button (Farmington Hills, Mich./Farmington) is also back for 2006, hoping to pick up where she left off in the 2005 season. Button finished 4th at the Crusader Invitational, 6th at the Evansville Invitational and 17th at the Mid-Con Championships, running her fastest 6K of the year, 23:11.2, at the league's premier event. The junior has eight top-20 finishes in her brief career, and was the team's co-MVP as a freshman.
Button's classmate, Renae Swift (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso), is back for 2006 as well, looking to regain her strong form of two years ago after missing last season with an injury. Swift did run for the Crusader track and field team in 2006, however, competing in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs.
While those four will be the core of the team in 2006, they still have plenty of help around them. Juniors Lisa Schroeck (Naperville, Ill./Benet Academy), who finished 33rd at the Mid-Con Championships, and Lauren McLaughlin (Shoreview, Minn./Mounds View), who ran a career-best 6K at the Crusader Invitational and Mid-Con Championships, are also back, along with Mary Barnes (Frankfort, Ind./Frankfort).
Straubel's crew will also welcome five newcomers, including senior Jennifer Plaskota (Naperville, Ill./Neuqua Valley) who has competed on the Crusader track and field team each of the last two seasons. Plaskota is joined by talented freshmen Alyssa Bradford (Mukwonago, Wis./Mukwonago), Rachel Howell (Dexter, Mich./Dexter), Emily Thompson (Sun Prairie, Wis./Sun Prairie) and Anna Yost (Girard, Kan./Girard).
The 2006 schedule kicks off at Sunset Hills Farm, Valpo's home course, on Friday, September 8 for the Crusader Invitational. The women's 4K will open the season at 5:00 p.m. with the men's 6K to follow at 5:45 p.m. The Crusaders will also run at Notre Dame, Indiana State, Evansville and Loyola (Chicago) before the 2006 Mid-Continent Conference Championships in Kansas City, Mo. on October 28. The Valpo season wraps two weeks later when the Brown and Gold run with some of the nations best at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional meet in Bowling Green, Ohio.