PILOTS CLIMB CLOSER TO THE TOP
Three years ago, shortly after the Portland Pilots took third at the NCAA Division I men's cross country championships in 2014, the trophy was sitting on a desk in Rob Conner's Chiles Center office.
"I looked at it and thought: 'That was special. That was probably a once-in-a-career day for a school this size,'" the Pilots coach remembers.
Conner's 2017 team did one better.
On Saturday, Nov. 18, in Louisville, Kentucky, Portland claimed second place.
With three runners earning All-America status, the team from The Bluff finished behind only Northern Arizona, which won its second consecutive national title.
Conner's Pilots have had a consistent presence at the national meet. This was the 18th time in Conner's 28 years that the Portland men qualified for nationals. It was their eighth top-10 finish.
So this year's team did not sneak up on its competition.
Still, it's a remarkable feat.
Of the teams at these nationals, according to Conner, Portland's was the only program that doesn't offer the maximum allowed cross country scholarships.
"The goal was to win (the national championship)," Conner says. "And people probably thought that was crazy. But if you run purposefully, you never know what might happen."
In this case, a top-ranked Northern Arizona team was too strong for Portland at its best. Six of the seven Pilots ran their best race of the year at nationals, leaving their coach thrilled.
"Our first six finishers all finished at the high end of what I thought they could possibly do on a great day," Conner says. "If I had to give them a grade, it would be A, or A-plus, on the first six."
Sophomore Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, a Conner find from France, led the way with his 11th-place finish. Roudolff-Levisse covered the 10,000 meters on a somewhat muddy track at Tom Sawyer State Park in 29 minutes, 38.9 seconds.
Running with him was senior Jeff Thies, who finished 14th in 29:40.62.
The third All-American was junior Nick Hauger, who finished 26th in the field of 250 (29:46.69).
Senior Matt Welch (46th, 30:09.62) and sophomore Caleb Webb (54th 30:14.65) were the other scoring finishers for the Pilots.
Juniors Logan Orndorf (64th, 30:20.83) and Noah Schutte (148th, 31:06.95) were the other Pilots in the field.
With about 70 percent of the scholarship resources of a program such as the University of Oregon, Conner thrives by finding runners who desire a University of Portland education. He wants runners with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.8.
"Most of our team has been recruited under the philosophy that if you have high grades you can get the big academic scholarship and then we give the athletic scholarship on top of that," Conner says.
And, running in the hype shadow of the Oregon Ducks, Conner's Pilots take pride in proving themselves.
"I think every guy's got a little bit of that chip on their shoulder," Thies says. "Everyone comes here with a lot of hunger to show the rest of the running community what they can do and what the University of Portland cross country team can do. I think that gives us a little bit of an edge when it comes to high mileage."
Thies, a fifth-year senior from Huntington Beach, California, and Hauger, a redshirt junior from Spokane, Washington, were young runners at Portland in 2014. Watching that senior-laden squad earn the third-place trophy showed this season's two team captains what was possible.
Conner's process for building a trophy-winning team includes scouring the internet. That's how he found Roudolff-Levisse, who has represented France internationally.
"We've had so much success lately that when we contacted Emmanuel he was very excited about our program," Conner says. "He saw the results and wanted to come."
Conner says it can be easier to attract international athletes because, unlike elite Americans, they haven't spent their youth dreaming of running for a big school such as Oregon.
Success for most college cross country runners is measured in years, not minutes. It takes a couple of years to build to the 100-plus mile training weeks necessary to become a top runner.
And in years like this — when the Pilots made winning a trophy at nationals their focus beginning last spring — it is a sport that demands training for the only two meets that really matter.
The Pilots won the NCAA West Regional meet for the second time (1993) and entered the nationals ranked fourth behind Northern Arizona, BYU and Syracuse.
BYU took third place, but Syracuse, despite having the individual champion in Justyn Knight, fell to 13th.
"All of the years of training culminated in a 30-minute race. And to have that performance and to have us accomplish our goals as a team, it meant the world to me," says Thies, who hopes to run professionally after graduating in the spring.
Hauger said the mind-set was to chase a national title. As thrilled as he is to bring home a second-place trophy, the redshirt junior was thinking ahead even during the trip back to Portland.
"There's still this little bit of an unsettled feeling in me and a couple of the other guys who will be back next year," Hauger says. "We want to come back and get that title."
The 2014 third-place team was laden with seniors, and the Pilots fell off in 2015.
This time, with five of the seven who ran at these nationals expected back (and 36 of the 40 on this season's roster), Portland should be in position to chase another trophy in 2018.
Shortly after the team returned triumphantly to the UP campus the day after the D-I championships, Conner was looking at two trophies in his office. Someone already had written on the whiteboard the number of days until the 2018 nationals at Madison, Wisconsin.
"We want to savor this a little bit," Conner says. "But, man, we have a great team lined up for next year, too. It's going to be very exciting. The guys are willing to work very hard, and the sky's the limit next year."