Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
How’s the air up there?
The Skyhawks can answer that rhetorical question now.
The Fort Lewis College men’s cross country team stepped into rarified air when the Skyhawks qualified for the NCAA Division II National Championships this season for only the second time in school history.
The FLC men finished sixth at the South Central Regional in Denver to earn their first trip to nationals since 1995. They will take the starting line Saturday with the NCAA Division II’s best in Joplin, Mo.
And the Skyhawks will thank the power brokers of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and the South Central Region for pulling them along on their historic journey to southwest Missouri and the national championships.
“It’s difficult to fathom ... hard to put into words really,” first-year FLC head coach Mark Dutro said of the Skyhawks’ first trip to nationals in 17 years. (The FLC women’s team qualified in 2006.)
“For some of us, it hasn’t really sunk in how big of a deal this is,” Dutro said as the Skyhawks prepared to take their No. 26 national ranking to Joplin.
“For one thing, the region we are in is the toughest region in Division II in the country. The top two teams are the top teams even for Division I,” Dutro said of the dual cross country powerhouses, Adams State University in Alamosa and Western State Colorado University in Gunnison.
“Then, the last four or five years, you’ve got (Colorado) Mines ranked and Colorado Springs ranked,” Dutro said.
“Oh my gosh, to be able to pull into that group is really humbling. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath,” Dutro said.
Since Adams State and Western State joined NCAA Division II, the two Colorado schools have combined to win 16 of 20 men’s national cross country titles – eight for Adams State and eight for Western State.
The Mountaineers of Western State ended Adams State’s three-year reign of national titles last year.
The two are expected to battle for the title again Saturday.
“They (Adams and Western) are definitely the foundation of the success in the region,” Dutro said.
“Because of their success, I think we’re getting more notice; because of the strength of our region, we’re getting attention,” Dutro said.
In this week’s NCAA Division II national rankings, there are four RMAC teams in the top nine.
“It feels good to have a cross country team such as ours and given where we’re at making an impact, especially in the RMAC,” FLC sophomore Christian Gering said.
This national berth long has been in the making after a couple of years of hard work, Gering said.
Adams State is ranked No. 1. Western State is ranked No. 2.
Colorado School of Mines is ranked No. 3 nationally, with UC-Colorado Springs at No. 9.
Add FLC at No. 26.
“(The FLC runners) are excited. They know what this can do for Fort Lewis. It’s an opportunity to show there are other strong sports here,” said Dutro, an FLC instructor who coached the Durango High School cross country and track teams for a decade.
“It’s like the whole school is watching,” Skyhawks’ senior leader Kiprono Mutai said.
“As a team, we’re just wanting to do better than we’re ranked, just to prove we deserve to be there,” former Bayfield High School standout Derek Laue said.
“The guys don’t seem to be intimidated. They know we’re going to be a part of the show. In fact, we’re right next to Western in the (starting) box assignments. That will be great,” Dutro said.
He credited a strong pack finish with an outstanding lead performance by Mutai for the Skyhawks’ national-qualifying effort at the Denver regionals.
“Kip definitely helped us out at regionals. He placed higher than he had been ... and I think it gave him confidence,” he said of the Kenyan native who finished 15th at regionals. He ran the 10-kilometer course (6.2 miles) in 32 minutes, 53 seconds, earning All-South Central Region honors.
“It’s so exciting,” Mutai said. “It was one of the goals I jotted down at the beginning of the year.
“They rely on me. The better you do, the better for the team. It’s the best role to play,” said Mutai, even if it is a “little scary” sometimes, too.
“The rest of the guys ... feel like they can be up close to him,” Dutro said.
“The other thing is we’ll be going down in elevation (at Joplin). We know we’ll have a little advantage there,” Dutro said.
Mutai said training at nearly 7,000 feet – “so hard” when it comes to breathing and climbing the hills – should provide a boon when the Skyhawks’ shoes hit the road at just 981 feet.
“Train hard, and win easy,” he said.
Other FLC national qualifiers (with regional finish and time) are Garrett Sapakoff (33rd, 33:52), Gering (36th, 33:58), Jimmy Mohrbacher (43rd, 34:31), Joey Brenner (52nd, 34:47), Laue (71st, 35:31) and Alex Kilman (110th, 36:45).
“This year we’ve really bonded as a team,” Laue said. “If you’re by yourself, it’s exciting. But if you go as a team, it’s exciting and fun.”
Dutro said Sapakoff, a freshman who formerly competed at nearby Littleton High School, had an outstanding qualifying race in Denver last week.
“He was definitely running for the home crowd,” Dutro said.
“It’s kind of cool because I’ve never really been on a team that could qualify for anything,” Sapakoff said.
Durango Herald sports writer Jim Sojourner contributed to this report.