JBU men’s cross coun­try re­ceiv­ing Top 25 votes

Siloam Springs Herald Leader - - SPORTS - By Gra­ham Thomas Staff Writer ■ gth­omas@nwadg.com

The John Brown men’s cross coun­try team is work­ing its way into the NAIA na­tional conversation.

For the first time since the restart of the pro­gram in 2010, the Golden Ea­gles were among the group of teams re­ceiv­ing votes to be ranked in the Coaches’ Pre­sea­son Top 25 Poll, which was re­leased on Wed­nes­day, Aug. 29.

“It’s nice that our guys are start­ing to get rec­og­nized for their ef­forts,” said JBU head coach Scott Schochler, who’s en­ter­ing his fifth sea­son as the helm of the cross coun­try pro­gram. “It’s nice to get recog­ni­tion early in the sea­son, but we’ve still got to go out and race and per­form like we should.”

The Golden Ea­gles fin­ished fourth out of nine teams in the Sooner Ath­letic Con­fer­ence but did not qual­ify as a team for the NAIA Cham­pi­onship Meet. Only in­di­vid­ual Josh Uzelac qual­i­fied as an in­di­vid­ual for the third straight year.

Now a se­nior, the Golden Ea­gles hope Uzelac is the one lead­ing the charge for a JBU ap­pear­ance in 2018 as the sea­son be­gins on Satur­day with the Cen­tral Arkansas XC Chal­lenge in Con­way.

Uzelac (5-foot-8, Spring­dale Har-Ber) is one of four se­niors on the JBU ros­ter for 2018, and cer­tainly the most dec­o­rated as an Al­lSooner Atheltic Con­fer­ence se­lec­tion in 2017.

“Ob­vi­ously, Uzelac has been our No. 1 run­ner the last three years,” Schochler said. “He re­ally helps set the tone for the men’s team. Now that he’s a se­nior, hav­ing that se­nior lead­er­ship and know­ing what it takes to get to na­tion­als is a huge help for our men’s team.”

Se­nior Ja­cob Ben­jamin (5-2, Salem, Ore.) also looks to be one of the Golden Ea­gles’ top run­ners after a strong ju­nior sea­son.

“He’s just a con­sis­tent worker and con­sis­tent per­formener at meets,” Schochler said. “He’s right there ev­ery meet where we need him to be. Now be­ing a se­nior ev­ery­body in the pro­gram looks at Ja­cob as the silent leader. Josh is the up front guy and ‘Benji’ is the guy that sets the tone be­hind the scenes.”

JBU is ex­pect­ing big things out of se­nior Michael Gaines (5-9, North Lit­tle Rock).

“Last year we kind of saw some things we had hoped for and hadn’t seen be­fore (out of Gaines),” Schochler said. “We’re hop­ing he has some break­through per­for­mances and can be up front with Josh and Benji.”

Se­nior Ja­cob Synek (6-0, Lea­wood, Kan.) hasn’t been able to com­pete very much be­cause of lower leg is­sues, but Schochler said he ap­pears to be healthy and is ready to go.

“He’s been healthy all sum­mer and come in this fall very fit,” Schochler said. “Now it’s just get­ting him some con­fi­dence that he can run with those front guys. I’m ex­cited to see what Ja­cob can do to fin­ish his ca­reer out at JBU.”

Sopho­more Ben Martin (6-2, Wi­chita, Kan.) has had a strong sum­mer after a solid fresh­man sea­son last year, Schochler said.

“He looks ready to have a big, big sea­son,” Schochler said of Martin. “He may end up push­ing Josh and those guys up front if not run­ning in front of them a lit­tle bit. Hope­fully he can push those first three guys ev­ery meet and re­ally push our team’s per­for­mance.”

An­other sopho­more from Wi­chita, Matthew

Bloom (6-2) seems to be com­ing into his own after deal­ing with in­juries as a fresh­man, Schochler said.

The JBU coach said ju­nior El­liott Pear­son (5-11) of Siloam Springs has been fight­ing back is­sues the last few weeks.

“Hope­fully, he’ll come around,” Schochler said of Pear­son.

Ju­nior Nathan Pear­son (5-9, Tulsa, Okla.), El­liott’s cousin, ex­ceeded all ex­pec­ta­tions last sea­son and “we’re ex­pect­ing him to con­tinue to im­prove,” Schochler said.

Sopho­more Eathan Devine (5-9, Bryant) is an­other re­turner from last year’s team who “keeps im­prov­ing and putting the work in,” his coach said.

Ju­niors Ethan Stafford (62, Carl Junc­tion) and Nate Wert­jes (6-1, Tumwa­ter, Wash.) and sopho­more John Un­ruh (6-4, Prairie Grove) also are back and push team­mates in work­outs.

JBU wel­comes two fresh­men to the mix in 2018.

Ryan Knight (6-2, Tumwa­ter, Wash.) is ex­pected to bat­tle for a top seven po­si­tion “after he gets over the shock of his first col­lege race.”

“He looks re­ally strong in work­outs,” Schochler said. “Ryan has run with the top guys on our team this sum­mer. Ex­cited to see what Ryan can do.”

Schochler said fresh­man Clay Pop­kess (6-3, Wis­ter, Okla.) is go­ing to be a bit of a project for the Golden Ea­gles.

“He has no cross coun­try race ex­pe­ri­ence, but he’s run sev­eral half marathons and he’s got a lot of miles on him,” Schochler said.

SAC Con­fer­ence mem­ber Ok­la­homa City was ranked No. 1 in the na­tion in the pre­sea­son poll and is the con­fer­ence’s only team that is ranked. JBU is the only SAC team re­ceiv­ing votes.

If JBU can re­main in the na­tional poll or among the team’s re­ceiv­ing votes, it could help come play­off time.

“I think we’ve got a le­git­i­mate shot at na­tion­als on the men’s side,” Schochler said. “Hope­fully we can get there.”

Photo sub­mit­ted

Se­nior Josh Uzelac is ex­pected to be one of the lead­ers once again for the John Brown Univer­sity men’s cross coun­try team.

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