The Cal Baptist women's cross country team knows that November presents their one and only opportunity to win the NCAA Division II title. That's not just a hyperbolic proclamation of an upstart team in search of a motivating mantra; it's simply a fact. After this season, the Cal Baptist athletic program will transition to Division I, where they'll join the Western Athletic Conference.
This feeling of finality -- not just their first No. 1 ranking in the coaches' poll -- is motivating the Lancers in their pursuit of DII heavyweights Grand Valley State and Adams State at the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships, held in Evansville, Indiana, on November 18 and streamed live right here on FloTrack.
CBU athletics only joined Division II six years ago after previously competing in NAIA, but the successful program was granted an invitation last January to move up once again. That means that a four-year exclusion from NCAA championship events awaits, this after gaining DII championship eligibility in 2013. For the women's cross country team, the championship contender they've cultivated since first qualifying for NCAAs two years ago will have one legitimate crack at the title before starting all over again in Division I next year.
As the calendar brings November 18 and the DII championship meet into view, the improved Cal Baptist squad is less focused on how they match up with defending champion Grand Valley and 16-time DII champs Adams State, and more concerned with making the most of a team that won't be eligible for postseason competition until 2022, due to the four-year probationary period before gaining full acceptance into Division I.
"That's probably, if anything, more the thing that changes the feeling of this November for us than where the team is at," Cal Baptist head coach Ben Gall told FloTrack. "That really changes our perspective.
"We haven't talked about the rankings, we've never mentioned Grand Valley or Adams or anything. We're just always talking about how can we be better. Trying to avoid that kind of thinking just because I think that's when we'll kind of screw up our team, basically."
CBU's desire to capitalize on their impending exit from Division II has coincided perfectly with the team's collective improvement. The Lancers finished ninth at NCAAs last fall after placing 26th the season before, and, crucially, they returned their entire top seven in 2017. Lack of turnover and greater commitment have led to the squad approaching their potential.
"Last year we had a lot of new people, there was a lot of just growing pains with people getting to know each other and learning how to work together," Gall said. "They're sold on how we do things. They've been through the process a couple seasons at least now, and really trust us as coaches, our entire staff. They're just more confident when they go to races."
Of course, the success of any top-10-finishing team that returns all of their top runners should not be all too surprising, but Cal Baptist has elevated their game beyond expectations this season. That became clear when CBU won DII's equivalent of a Pre-National meet at the Lewis Crossover on October 7; they defeated Grand Valley State by a 51-66 score. The Lancers top three of Emeline Delanis, Fruzsi Ladanyi, and Leanda du Bruyn -- none of whom was All-American last November -- finished third, fourth, and fifth, and the program suddenly had arrived in the national title discussion.
"It was a surprise to us, I guess, but we also knew we had a good team and should be somewhere up there," Gall said.
The head coach especially knew big improvements were in order for current No. 1 runner Emeline Delanis, who was just 97th at NCAAs last year but came on strong last track season. She didn't make her 5K debut until her second track season with the Lancers, but the event suited Delanis right away as she broke the school record (16:37) this past spring and ultimately finished ninth at NCAA outdoor.
The junior from France was a middle distance runner when she arrived on campus two years ago with no aerobic training, and Gall initially wasn't sure if she would be a fit. Fortunately, a former top runner on the men's team who knew Delanis from back home in France swayed Gall into recruiting her.
"He just really sold her on our program, and she was pretty underdeveloped, so he really sold us on her," Gall said.
Delanis was under-trained as a high schooler and only ran 10-15 miles a week, and according to her coach it wasn't until the end of last cross country that she bought in to the longer distances being her strength. The culmination of that commitment and the long term consistency of the training program paid dividends not only in the 5K this past spring, but also in the steeplechase later in the summer, as Delanis ran a 15-second PB of 10:27 back home in France.
"Consistency over the last three years -- she's really starting to reap the rewards of that," Gall said.
Now with a breakout cross country performance at Lewis and an individual conference title in her back pocket, Delanis' development could be a crucial piece of the puzzle in defeating the Grand Valley and Adams State juggernauts at nationals. Thirteen of the last 14 women's NCAA DII cross country titles have gone to one of those two schools, and both teams ran very well at their conference meets two weeks ago.
For Cal Baptist to defeat both giants, the Lancers need their runners to step up even more than they did at Lewis.
"We know we're going to have to be a lot better to pull it off again (at nationals)," Gall said.
Cal Baptist has already shown they can topple a giant at full strength, but now they must show that same ability under the pressure of an NCAA championship with the knowledge that the meet will be this group's last opportunity.
"We can finish there if we run well," Gall said.
Whether November 18 brings another title for the DII giants or a first crown for the departing Cal Baptist team, it's going to be a can't-miss show. Gall, for one, sounds confident not only in his team's racing ability, but also in their mental fortitude.