Nov. 19, 2010

Nick Finch, Special to

Michael Spain is oh so close to the individual pinnacle of his sport.

"It's part of the process," Spain said as he prepares to close out his decorated cross-country career at North Central (Ill.) College. "Four years of building up to this point. Each season builds upon the next."

Spain, a senior from Schaumburg, Ill., finished second in the 2009 NCAA Division III national cross country championships, 23 seconds behind Ricky Flynn of Lynchburg (Va.). And Spain's high finish was a key to North Central winning the 2009 team championship.

Spain hopes Saturday will be his day out in front, and he said finishing second last year has only helped his expectations soar.

"It was a great experience but the best part was getting two low points (by finishing second) for our team," Spain said. "My job is to produce as few points as possible in a manner that doesn't risk anything for our team.”

The Cardinals are among 32 men’s teams and 56 individual runners that will compete in the 2010 national championships at Wartburg (Iowa) College Saturday. The 8K race begins at 11 a.m (CST).

SUNY Geneseo, Allegheny (Penn.), Calvin (Mich.) College, Haverford (Penn.) College and St. Lawrence (NY) University will also be among the contenders for the team title.

Spain won the Midwest Regional at Rock Island, Ill. in 24 minutes, 6.4 seconds, with a blistering 4:51 pace. He had the fastest regional time of any of this Saturday's national championship qualifiers. The Midwest Regional was a fast course – the top 35 runners finished the 8k course in less than 25 minutes.

When North Central won the team championship last season, it was the Cardinals’ 13th national title, but first since 1999. Coach Al Carius said the 2010 Cardinals are not as experienced as some of his previous title teams but they have plenty of confidence to go with their No. 1 ranking.

"The beauty of each year is that it's a new experience,” said Carius, who has coached at North Central since 1966. “I'm excited and pleased. They are a Cinderella team. A group of men that have matured into a cohesive unit."

Spain said he and his teammates worked through the season without any major injuries. Carius said he expects the foundation Spain has built since getting to North Central to pay off one last time.

"He is a great example of work ethic," said Carius. "He is a tough, tough man, the Dan Gable of running. A tremendous role model, not just for himself but through his support for our team."

Among the other contenders is Calvin College, which has won four national team titles over the past decade (2000, 2003, 2004, 2006). Junior Nick Kramer won the Great Lakes Regional by a 13-second margin despite battling through a shin injury for much of the season.

"Everybody has to fulfill a role," coach Brian Diemer said. "Our guys were probably looking a little bit ahead to the nationals."

Though Diemer expects his team to be competitive, he is concerned about the near-freezing temperatures forecast for the day of the championship.

"Our kids are used to it but we haven't run in snow yet this year," Diemer said.

As Spain tries to lead North Central to a 14th team title, he said the weather is not a top concern.

“Not at all,” said Spain. “Everyone has to deal with it the same way. For me, running is enjoyable to do anytime, anyplace.”