The Valparaiso women's cross country team has its sights set on its first conference championship as the squad travels to Lee's Summit, Mo. to run in the Mid-Continent Conference Championship meet on Saturday.
The Crusaders, who have placed third in each of the last three seasons at the conference meet, have enjoyed a successful 2006 campaign. Valpo kicked off the season with a victory in its own Crusader Invitational, defeating Notre Dame, among others. The squad followed with a second-place finish at the Indiana Intercollegiates out of 26 teams. The Brown and Gold then kicked up the competition, running against some of the nation's best at the Notre Dame Invitational Blue race and the NCAA Pre-Nationals, the only Mid-Con team to take part in either race.
Leading the way this year for Valpo has been the sensational sophomore Laura Rolf (Rochester, Mich./Lutheran Northwest). Rolf captured individual top honors at the Crusader Invitational, and followed with a third-place finish at the Indiana Intercollegiates. She followed with an extraordinary effort at Notre Dame, coming home 22nd in 17:18 over the 5K course. Her time was just 10 seconds out of the top-10 and only five seconds behind the school record held by All-American Collette Liss. But Rolf saved her best so far this season for her run at the NCAA Pre-Nationals, smashing the school 6K record by 74 seconds with a run of 20:50.2, good for 26th place.
Three-time All-Conference honoree Danielle Nunnelly (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) is a good bet to be right behind Rolf at the championship meet. Nunnelly has posted two runner-up finishes this season, running the third-fastest 5K in school history at the Indiana Intercollegiates, covering the course in 17:48. Ashley Billstrom (Hales Corners, Wis./Whitnall) is also rounding into top form, as she ran the second-fastest 6K at Valpo all-time at the NCAA Pre-Nationals, crossing the line in 22:09.9. The time is also the sixth-best 6K in the conference this year. Rachael Button (Farmington, Mich./Farmington) and Renae Swift (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) have also been among Valpo's top runners this season.
Defending champion Oral Roberts is among the threats to take the team crown again this year, as the Golden Eagles return Faithy Kamangila and Diana Chelimo, the top two finishers at last year's championship meet. Southern Utah is also a contender, looking to re-claim the title after losing it for the first time in eight years last season.
Everything the Crusaders have done this season has been in preparation for Saturday's meet. The races have gotten gradually longer, from four kilometers to six kilometers, and the times have been improving. If Rolf continues to run as well as she has been running and Nunnelly and Billstrom match the high standards they have set for themselves this season, Valpo will be right in the thick of things looking for the team championship Saturday.