Banner recruiting class bolsters Central men’s cross country squad

Central Dutch Athletics

Central Dutch Athletics

PELLA–A potentially game-changing incoming freshman class and an opportunity to provide an even sharper focus on his program has coach Joe Dunham enthused about the 2018 Central College men’s cross country season.

After the most successful four-year run in the program’s history, the Dutch slipped to fourth in the Iowa Conference in 2016 and a disappointing sixth place last fall. But with what he thinks could best recruiting class in his 11 years as head coach, Dunham has quickly put 2017 in the rear-view mirror. He’s got a burst of new energy on a personal level as well. The highly decorated leader gave up his duties as head men’s and women’s track and field coach, with the primary mission of making Central’s distance program one of the nation’s elite. He’ll continue as associate head track and field coach to focus on providing the distance runners consistent year-round training.

“I’m excited for the new challenges I’m going to have,” Dunham said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Even though Dunham is a veteran coach at Central, with his newly targeted responsibilities, the team’s significant graduation losses and the large influx of new talent, it feels like a time of transition. Central graduated four of its varsity seven runners, including NCAA Division III national qualifiers Mark Fairley and Tanner Rathje.

“Obviously, we lost a lot,” Dunham said. “We lost a group of guys who been in the top seven the last few years. We’re going through a lot of change and we’re going to be relying on some younger faces. It’s kind of a scary time for our program but also an exciting time as we start a new chapter with a new group of guys.”

But the returnees and the newcomers give Dunham reason to think a rebound is already underway.

“The culture of our team is the best since I’ve been at Central so I think that’s what I’m most excited about,” Dunham said. “When you have a strong culture like that, good things are bound to happen because you have runners who are going to support each other and lift each other up.”

While there’s no clear No. 1 runner, the early leader is expected to be senior Jordan Toomey. He was the No. 3 finisher behind Fairley and Rathje. A three-time letterwinner and 2017 team co-captain, Toomey placed 45th in each of the past two conference meets, finishing in 26:55 over 8,000 meters in last fall’s race.

“Jordan Toomey is going to be one of our best runners and one of our leaders,” Dunham said. “He’s really improved over the last two years and I know he’s got big goals coming in as a senior.”

Junior Preston Kizer was 42nd in the league and turned in a career-best 26:53 at the regional meet. The team’s Most Improved Performer Award winner is continuing to make strides.

“Preston is coming off an incredible sophomore year on the track,” Dunham said. “He’s mentally ready to take the next step. He’s a middle-distance guy who’s bought into being a distance runner.”

Seniors Parker Hill and Kyle Pape are this year’s team co-captains. Pape was 44th in the conference last fall in 27:06 before finishing in 26:57 at the regional meet. Hill ran a career-best 27:10 in taking 47th at the league meet.

“Kyle Pape is a workhorse,” Dunham said. “We look to him to be a leader. Parker is going to contribute for us throughout the season. He’s had a really good summer.”

Last year’s Newcomer of the Year Award recipient, sophomore Nathan Sanders, is the other top-seven veteran returning. He was 49th at the league meet in 27:13.

“Nathan has dealt with some injuries but he’s one of our top runners,” Dunham said.

Chief among the other contenders for the top seven are juniors Bryant Seuferer, Eli Miller and Daniel Sunvold and sophomore Jerry Lotz.

“They all had great track seasons,” Dunham said. “It’s a question of how that translates to cross country but they’ve laid a good foundation.”

Dunham has also seen improvement from senior Colin Thomson, juniors Dalten Lehman, Mason Muur and Austin Pfiffner and sophomore Trent Swartwoudt.

But it’s likely there will be some freshmen forcing their way into the lineup. It’s a large and talented group and a huge part of the program’s future, Dunham said.

Bringing the most headlines is Jeremy Fopma of Marion, who took first in the Class 3A high school state 1600 meters and finished second in the 3,200 meters.

“Jeremy was one of the top runners in Iowa,” Dunham said. “He’s going to be part of the foundation for our program moving forward.”

Likewise, Brycen Wallace of Greenfield placed second in the Class 1A 3200 meters and third in the 1600 meters.

“Brycen will definitely be fighting for a top-seven spot,” Dunham said.

Bringing equally glossy credentials from outside of Iowa are Easton Sabala of Hermitage, Missouri and Jack Sagan of Riverside, Illinois.

Sabala won the Missouri Class 1 state cross country crown as well as the state 3,200-meter state track title while finishing third in the 1,600 meters.

“Easton is coming off an incredible high school career,” Dunham said. “He will be a major contributor at Central.”

Sagan will need to adjust to longer distances but has the tools, Duhnam said.

“Jack’s a great middle-distance guy,” he said. “Depending on how things go with his training, he could be someone who’s in the top seven.”

The same is true of Will De Haan of DeWitt and Dunham is also high on the potential of Cutler Owens of Runnells, Ben Lamparek of Williamsburg and Edison Wieg of Nevada, among others.

“On paper, it’s the largest and deepest class that I’ve had in terms of talent and ability,” Dunham said. “But a lot of the reason past classes have been good is because of what they’ve done after they’ve gotten here, so how these men react to training, how they react to coaching how they approach every day at practice will determine how good they will be. But it’s a very exciting time for our distance program here at Central.”

Dunham calls Wartburg the favorite in the newly named American Rivers Conference, although defending champ Loras will be a contender again at the league meet in Lincoln, Nebraska Oct. 27 despite heavy graduation loses. Luther is on the rise, said Dunham, who expects Nebraska Wesleyan, Central and Simpson to be in the hunt as well.

“I think there’s a lot of parity in the league,” he said. “It is a rebuilding year for us but we do have some really good talent. I don’t know for sure how good we’ll be. I’ll know a lot more at the end of September.”

The September slate concludes with the Rim Rock Classic hosted by the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Central returns after a favorable experience in 2015. The Dutch will also travel out of state for the Oct. 13 Wisconsin-Oshkosh Pre-National Invitational at the site of the NCAA Division III Championships Nov. 17.

“It will be good for our men to run at Oshkosh and Rim Rock,” Dunham said. “It will be a chance to run some fast times and develop confidence before the conference meet at Nebraska Wesleyan.”

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