In the early 1980s, Tom Rutledge was the head women’s track coach at Adams State. At the time, Adams State’s cross country team on both the men’s and women’s side of the sport had yet to win a national title. Rutledge hired Damon Martin as a graduate assistant to help him coach the team in 1985.
Thirty years since being called upon by Rutledge, Martin heads to Joplin, Missouri, to the cross country course that bears Rutledge’s name. His team, for which he was hired as head coach in 1998, is a simple favorite for the national title this season, having won three men’s titles in a row.
Martin transformed Rutledge’s program into a Division II cross country powerhouse, winning 28 total titles between the men’s and women’s competitions and garnering 986 all-America honors. Martin has been named Division II Coach of the Year on 33 occasions.
Rutledge moved on from Adams State to become the head cross country coach at Missouri Southern State, where this year’s championships are staged.
“I’ve been able to tell the kids about the course and what it’s like, a little history of it,” Martin said of his memories from Joplin. “We’re excited to go back.”
With titles from six of the last seven national championships in the men’s side of the sport, Martin is looking to continue his team’s dominance in Joplin. Adams State’s women’s cross country team, however, hasn’t won a national title since 2009. However, the last time the race took place in Joplin in 1999, the Adams State women won with a record-low score of 27, which still stands as the record today.
As of late, Division II women’s cross country dominance has been held by another school, Grand Valley State and head coach Jerry Baltes. Baltes’ women’s team has won four of the last five national titles.
“I think the biggest thing is our student athletes buy into what were about were a program is about,” Baltes said of his program’s success. “And we talked about it being way more than the individual that’s running.”
Martin said his success helps continue because of the tradition he is able to establish with his athletes.
“Because we have had so much success, when you tell the kids they have to work this hard they don’t really blink an eye because they know that if they do it they’re going to have the opportunity to be in the top seven to have a chance to try to win a national title,” Martin said.
Baltes’ Grand Valley State team has remained atop the ranking in women’s cross country for a large stretch of the regular season and goes into the national championship as a unanimous No. 1 with Adams State’s women at No. 2.
Martin’s Adams State men’s team holds the No. 1 ranking going into the national championship. Grand Valley State’s men’s team is second in the nation.
Grand Valley State and Adams State both won their conference, the GLIAC and the RMAC respectively with their women’s teams. Other schools challenging for the title include the Alaska-Anchorage, which had two runners, Joyce Chelimo and Caroline Kurgat, finish first and second, respectively, in the West Regional race. Grand Valley State won the Midwest Regional race as a team but the top finisher individually in the race was Hillsdale’s Emily Oren.
Adams State won the South Central Regional with nearly half the score, 27, of the second-place team, Western State with 56. The Grizzlies placed four runners from third to sixth, but Dallas Baptist’s Kelsey Bruce took the win in the race and qualified individually as a result.
In the Atlantic Region, Tampa won the race as a team but did not have a runner finishing in the top five. Colett Rampf of Saint Leo qualified individually for the national title by winning that regional race.
On the men’s side of things, Alaska-Anchorage is also a contender with Henry Cheseto and Dominik Notz taking first and second respectively in the West Regional. American Int’l qualified as a team with three runners in the top four of the East Regional.
Grand Valley State heads into the men’s national championship race having easily won the Midwest Regional. The second-place team in that regional recorded 122 points to Grand Valley State’s 43. However, Grand Valley State did not have a finisher inside the top four. The Midwest Regional’s champion Benjamin Tuttle qualified individually for a chance at the national title.
Adams State’s Sydney Gidabuday finished third in the South Central Regional on the way to Adams State winning the men’s regional race. Keifer Johnson of Western State won that regional race. Johnson’s school finished runner-up in the national championship four times in a row from 2007 to 2010.
Pierre Pepiot of Academy of Art, whose school did not qualify as a team, took fourth in the West regional with a time only 24 seconds after the leader.
Although Adams State and Grand Valley State come into the national championship with the best resumes, the two powerhouses are faced with several contenders that include schools like Alaska Anchorage or Chico State and a number of individual qualifiers.
Baltes and Martin said each of them were more focused on their squads’ process of running the race than the expectations weighing on their athletes.
“It’s going to take a competitive hard fought race to accomplish our goals,” Baltes said. “We try to focus on that and definitely try to think about the end result.”
“You can’t focus on [winning], you have to focus on what the individual can do to have a great race and put our best race out there,” Martin said.