Speeding toward the summit
Chico State distance runners steadily close the gap between their program and the perennial champions
It’s a night that will be engraved in the memory of everyone who witnessed it—the moment when a Chico State sophomore out-kicked, out-strategized and out-bullied the best 10,000-meter runner in NCAA Division II and, at one point this year, the world.
At the NCAA track and field championship meet on May 24, Scott Bauhs made up a seemingly impossible deficit halfway through the 10-kilometer race to overcome, then hold off, Abilene Christian’s Nicodemus Naimadu. The sleek and mighty Kenyan hadn’t lost a race on the track longer than a mile in his collegiate career and even briefly held the world record in the 10,000 (28 minutes, 6.26 seconds).
Bauhs’ effort exemplifies the gritty group of distance runners Coach Gary Towne has assembled and the program he’s built at Chico State.
Towne, now in his 12th year, may look back at Bauhs’ victory—essentially a product of the cross-country season—as the latest in a decade-long string of watershed moments. The Wildcats have run squarely into the national spotlight, and with the cross-country teams ready to take center stage, they stand on the precipice of the Division II pinnacle.
“It’s our gem of a program, but it’s a piece that not a lot of people know about,” Athletic Director Anita Barker said. “It’s kind of like the unknown superstar.”
Over the past 11 seasons, the Wildcat men have eight national top-10 finishes in cross-country, and the women have six. In 2006, the men placed fourth in the nation (their fifth-straight top-five finish), and the women were ninth, (their sixth top-10 finish in seven seasons). Heading into the season-opening invitational last Saturday (Sept. 8) at the Forebay Aquatics Center in Oroville, Chico State’s men were ranked fifth and the women ninth, and they finished close seconds that meet behind Division I Stanford.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do. But I don’t view us as being the premier program in the nation,” Towne said. “It would be unfair to say that, given the success of Adams State and Western State. Those two teams set the bar in Division II, and we haven’t won a national title yet.”
Adams State and Western State, a pair of Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference schools, have virtually monopolized the cross-country championship. Both schools sit at approximately 7,700 feet in elevation, and just 120 miles separate the two campuses.
Since 1992, Adams has captured 17 of the possible 30 combined men’s and women’s national titles (12 for the women, five for the men). Western has 10 (seven men’s, three women’s). Five times, both the Adams men and women claimed the national title (1992-94, 1998, 2003). Only Adams State and Western State Mountaineers have won women’s national titles.
So, how far is Chico State from becoming the top cross-country program in the country? Milestones over the past 10 years suggest the Wildcats are inching closer.
1997: In just Towne’s second year, the women qualified for the national championship for the first time ever. “That was a cool breakthrough for the women. We got beat by everyone,” Towne said. “We took 18th out of 18 teams.”
1998: The women qualified again … and beat one team.
1999: The men edged West Regional stalwart Humboldt State to qualify for the NCAA meet. With no expectations higher than a top-10 finish, they placed sixth.
2000: Both squads qualified for the national meet for the first time in school history—and have been back as a group each year since.
2002: The men and women both posted fifth-place finishes, the best combined finish ever.
2003: Both teams improved with a pair of top-four finishes. “The top four is a big landmark, because that’s where you get the trophies,” Towne explained. “And to do that on the same day was pretty special.”
2005: That “hardware team” repeated the feat again (men were third and women placed fourth).
With the right ingredients, Towne feels the Wildcats can eventually break through.
“We just need to put the right group of people together and time things right,” he said. “Hard work, of course; consistency, getting kids to really buy into the training to have success at the national level. We also need more funding.”
Ahh, yes, funding. Money is a major drawing card, even at the Division II level and especially internationally. Abilene Christian has a burgeoning list of recruited Kenyans. This fall, Western State’s men’s team fields two Scotsmen and two New Zealanders; the women have a pair of Kenyans and a Hungarian. And four of Adams State’s men are native Kenyans.
“We can’t accommodate foreign athletes. We don’t have the resources to say, ‘Yeah, we can give you a full ride, come to Chico State,'” Towne said. “We basically divide a little more than one scholarship over the entire team, and Adams State and Western State each have four or five athletes that are probably on close to full rides.”
If the Chico State Athletic Department offered every student-athlete what it could—basically maxing out the funding—it would spend $1.3 million every year. (That figure increases as tuition does.)
Chico State currently devotes $450,000 to financial assistance for its athletes. Its scholarship philosophy also differs from other elite Division II programs: While Chico State opts to spread its dollars fairly evenly across its 13 sports, Adams and Western flood their cross-country programs with the bulk of their funds.
“It’s mostly fundraised dollars that we have to be able to use for scholarship dollars, so we’re at the mercy of how our fundraising does,” Barker said. “It would be nice, though, for Gary to have more ammunition against some of the other top-echelon programs.”
Coming off last year’s success, and Bauhs’ remarkable win on the track, Chico State is ready for another run at the hardware.
Six of the top seven women return, including three all-West Regional athletes (seniors Sarah Montez and Lindsay Nelson and junior Julie Shaw). On top of them, Towne has what he considers his best recruiting class ever. Vaunted recruit and Chico High graduate Hannah Dillard will likely redshirt this year; freshmen Shannon McVanell and Kara Lubieniecki both placed in the top five in the Wildcats’ recent four-mile time trial.
“Sometimes, you’re kind of like, ‘Aw, damn, a freshman’s beating me.’ But now you’re like, ‘Aw, damn, now they’re going to push me,’ “ said Nelson, a Pleasant Valley High and Butte College product. “It’s just going to make our team better.”
Seniors Aisha Kamala and Dinora Moran and sophomore Allison Ivie all ran in last year’s NCAA championship meet, providing experience that was sorely missing that season.
The Chico State men have their work cut out for them. With Bauhs redshirting this season to save a semester of eligibility, the Wildcats’ top finisher from last year’s fourth-place national team is Tim Tollefson, a wiry senior with a Steve Prefontaine mop-top.
Nick Clinton joins Tollefson as the Wildcats’ only other senior out of 28 men; Michael Wickman, a redshirt sophomore and All-American at last year’s NCAA track meet, and Angel Marquez provide support.
“People will be counting us out just because we lost six of our seven guys,” said Tollefson, who was 59th at last year national cross-country meet. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be right there in the top four or five spots.”
If there’s any school that could pull it off, it’s Chico State.
Not only is history on their side, they also have boisterous alumni who make their way to meaningful meets, as if on a religious journey. Even if the lead pack is a mile away, the course will echo with the unmistakable sound of dozens of droning voices screaming, “CHEEE-KO! CHEEE-KO!”
“Your legs could be tired, your mind is starting to give up, and then you hear those Chico fans cheering, and it’s such a rush of adrenaline,” Tollefson said. “It sends chills through your body.”
It’s all part of the Chico State experience.