MONMOUTH — From the moment the season began, Western Oregon University’s men’s cross-country team had this race circled.
The Wolves knew a top three-finish in the team standings at the NCAA Division II West Region race on Saturday meant a trip to the national championships.
Led by an individual title from senior David Ribich, Western Oregon edged out Simon Fraser in a tie breaker to take third.
“Oh man, it was surreal,” Ribich said. “Everything paid off. The last couple of years, we’ve had individual success. This shows we’re more than a one-person wonder. We’re all reaching that level and getting the job done.”
Clinching their spot turned out to be more difficult than any of them could have imagined.
Ribich had one goal in mind prior to Saturday’s 10,000-meter race: Stay patient.
“I knew I’d have to finish fast in order to succeed,” he said. “A lot of times I make a move earlier and put a gap between me and some of the other runners. I needed to run a tactical race (on Saturday).”
Midway through the race, Ribich had the itch to be more aggressive, but teammate Dustin Nading kept him on task.
“I wanted to make a move at the 4,000-meter mark,” Ribich said. “Dustin was a big motivator to stay patient and keep me on track. We trust each other enough to be able to tell each other what we need to hear.”
Finally, with about 800-meters left in the race, Ribich started his kick, pulling away for first place in 29 minutes, 49.2 seconds.
“It was exactly how I pictured it would pan out,” he said. “It was kind of surreal to me. When I made the move, it felt effortless in a sense and there was a sigh of relief that the plan worked.”
But Ribich took little time to celebrate his individual championship. As quick as he could, Ribich was tracking how his teammates were doing.
Nading placed 13th in 30:28.9. Parker Marson followed in 32nd (31:05.2), with Tyler Jones (36th, 31:12.5 and Josh Dempsey (39th, 31:16.2) rounding out the team’s scoring runners.
“I’d count two for that team, three for this team,” he said. “I knew Chico (State) won (the team title), but then I was like, who is in contention right now? I was nervous. I knew it was going to be close.”
Turns out, it was closer than even Ribich thought. Western Oregon and Simon Fraser were tied. The tiebreaker was head to head finishes for each team’s top five runners.
The Wolves had a 3-2 edge.
“It was special for Josh (Dempsey) and I because that was the last race we’ll have in a Western Oregon uniform in Oregon,” Ribich said.
Now, WOU is headed to nationals in Indiana on Nov. 18.
It’s the next step in establishing the Wolves as one of the west’s distance powers.
“It starts like a fire,” Ribich said. “It only takes an ember to get the whole forest burning. When I arrived, the atmosphere was different. I credit the fact that everyone caught fire with what we want to accomplish is possible. No one is setting their limits low.”
That belief built slowly over time as runners like Ribich found success on a national level.
“For me, it started my sophomore year,” Ribich said. “I qualified for nationals. I set that standard for myself, and I had the mindset that nationals needs to be a normal meet, not something I’m chasing.”
Other runners, like Tyler Jones, arrived as a quiet, timid freshman, but developed into strong, motivated runners, Ribich said.
Last spring may have marked a watershed moment for the program.
“I think the distance medley relay team (in track) winning a national title was a turning point in our program,” Ribich said. “If we had taken second in that race by one hundredth of a second, I don’t think it would have had as big of an impact. It was a tone setter. It motivated us to put in the work.”
The result has been a team that believes it can accomplish great things and are seeing the results to back it up.
The Wolves are out to make sure Saturday wasn’t the highlight of their season, but rather another mark in their progression.
“We were third in the region. That’s a big stepping stone,” Ribich said. “But it doesn’t get us a trophy at nationals. It doesn’t solidify us as a program. We still have work to do.”