NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The collegiate cross country season is like a ladder; every race is a rung used to reach the next.
Well the Belmont Bruins are ready to take that final step.
The postseason begins now for the Belmont men's and women's cross country teams, who are in Charleston, Ill., this week for the Ohio Valley Conference Championships. The 12-team OVC meet begins at 9 a.m. Saturday with the men's 8K race. The women's 5K run follows at 10 a.m.
This is the point the whole season has been building toward, and the Bruins are ready to let their work speak for itself on the Panther Trail Cross Country Course. Both Belmont squads expect to challenge for a top-tier finish in the lead-in to November's NCAA South Regional meet.
"The hay is in the barn right now. The work's been done so we're just maintaining and keeping everybody sharp for championship season," Belmont Assistant Cross Country Coach Kate Bucknam said.
The Bruin men finished second to Eastern Kentucky at this meet last year in Nashville and have shown in recent weeks they're more than up to the challenge of the nationally ranked Colonels. Belmont is locked in after its top-five finish at Alabama's Crimson Classic two weeks ago.
"Alabama was an emotional high and I think the guys surprised themselves," Belmont Head Coach Jeff Langdon said. "We were breathing down the neck of (region powers) Auburn and Georgia Tech and I think that got the guys really fired up."
The pack of senior Luke Evans (Columbus, Ohio) and sophomores Chase Ballard (Columbus, Ind.), Declan McManus (Worcestershire, England) and Ben Weisel (Nashville, Tenn.) will keep Belmont in the running in the team competition while sophomore Kaleb McLeod (Soperton, Ga.) is chasing the leaders.
McLeod set a personal record at this distance (24:17.97) earlier in the month at the very deep Louisville Classic, and the smaller field of the conference championships provides an even bigger spark.
"It's a lot more intense because all these teams in the conference are our rivals," he said. "It just creates a really intense atmosphere, which is really cool to race in."
The Belmont women are coming off an impressive performance last time out as well when they surged to seventh at the Crimson Classic. They did so behind a tightly packed mid-section that followed sophomore Kortney Schardt (Lindenhurst, Ill.) and senior Jessica King (Fishers, Ind.) across the finish line.
Freshmen Ali White (Southlake, Texas) and Halle Hausman (Johnson City, Tenn.) were just five second apart with senior Kiera Weems (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) just behind that. The whole group -- from Schardt on down -- has improved in step together through the season.
"Our coaches this year have focused on taking that pack and moving it forward," King explained. "Every race you want that pack to be closer and closer to the front of the race."
EKU, which ranks 21st nationally on the women's side and 31st on the men's, is the defending champion in both competitions. The men have won 11 straight OVC titles with the women taking the last five.
LAST TIME OUT
The Belmont men finished fifth out of 26 teams at Alabama's Crimson Classic 8K two weeks, with Matt Edwards the program's top placer in 11th at 24:41.7. The women surged to seventh out of 30 teams at the Crimson Classic 6K behind top finisher Kortney Schardt's 23rd-place finish in 21:18.0
THE OVC FIELD
ABOUT THE COURSE
The panther Trail Cross Country Course is located in Charleston, Ill., home of Eastern Illinois University. It's the first time since 2005 it has hosted the OVC Championships.