JBU men’s cross country receiving Top 25 votes
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.”
Senior Josh Uzelac is expected to be one of the leaders once again for the John Brown University men’s cross country team.