The Minot State University cross country teams haven't leapfrogged many Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference opponents in team scores during their second season in NCAA Division II.
But coach Stu Melby gauges the Beavers' performances on past history and personal bests, and in that regard, he's pleased with the direction of his program.
Entering the NSIC Championships on Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D., no runner epitomizes that progress as much as sophomore Joel Cartwright - who has improved his 8K (4.97 mile) personal record by more than three minutes from last season. Cartwright ran a personal- and team-best 26 minutes, 14 seconds at the University of North Dakota Ron Pynn Invite on Saturday.
Minot State University sophomore Joel Cartwright competes in the University of North Dakota Ron Pynn Invite on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Sienna Dailey.
"I've got a really good team behind me this year and everybody is working really hard," Cartwright said. "It just helps to push me every day at practice. I really feel good at the meets."
Melby said a more mature attitude is the key to Cartwright's growth.
"He's consistently running three to four minutes faster this year than he did last year," Melby said. "He's relaxing a little bit more and has a little more confidence so I think that helps out. Just by the way he's running right now, he's probably gonna move up 50 to 60 places in the conference race."
MSU finished ninth out of 15 women's teams at the NSIC meet last year and 10th out of 13 men's teams. The Beavers are expected to be in that same range this season. Augustana - which boasts men's and women's teams ranked in the top 10 nationally - is favored to win both races.
Freshman Catie LeDesma and junior Kara Kuntz have alternated the top spot for the MSU women this season. LeDesma finished the 5K (3.1 mile) race at UND on Saturday in 18:58, seven seconds ahead of Kuntz.
"On the women's side, it's kind of gone how I thought it would between Catie and Kara," Melby said. "You could also say I was hoping for that, getting some freshmen in that are a little higher level than maybe we've had in the past. I think we've got that with Catie and Sam (Huether)."
The women's race Saturday will increase to six kilometers. The Beavers' training runs routinely cover more ground than that, and Melby said the extra 1,000 meters shouldn't be an issue.
"I expect them to go through the 5K at what they're running the 5K now, and keep going," he said.
Better midfield play boon for MSU
Senior midfielders Tara McPartland and Lexy Kidd did a lot of the dirty work for the 2012 Minot State University women's soccer team, which finished 15-4-3 and won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament. They controlled possession and won most of the balls in the middle of the field, taking pressure of MSU's back line.
Their importance was made even more apparent early this season, when a young MSU midfield struggled as the Beavers opened with a 1-5-2 record.
But MSU (5-6-2 overall, 5-5-1 NSIC) has won four of its past five matches, and improved play in the center of the field is a large part of that success.
"We've gotten more comfortable with each other," sophomore Kayla Schlittenhart said. "We're used to each other now and it's getting easier to connect and build offense."
MSU coach Jason Spain said Schlittenhart began last season at the bottom of the depth chart but has emerged as a mainstay. The athletic 5-foot-9 Sparks, Nev., native is a physical presence and particularly adept at winning headers.
"She just looks for the ball and climbs up people to get to it," Spain said. "We'd be lost without her because she's the one midfielder that's been playing well the whole season. And she's improved along with everybody else as well."
Redshirt freshman Kelli Creese is a defensive midfielder, responsible for marking some of the opponents' top offensive players. Spain said sophomore Kristin Long's dribbling ability and vision has helped the Beavers' transition from defense to offense better in recent matches. Long routinely controls the ball in the center of the field and finds wingbacks streaking up the sidelines.
Sophomore Emilie Rebelo, likely the team's most accurate ball-striker, subs in for Long during each half and adds offensive punch. Rebelo has scored in each of the past two matches.
"The first part of the game is a lot of turnovers and it's really compact," Spain said. "Then we like to bring in Belo and (freshman forward) Jayden (Montejano). They're both really effective when the game opens up."
Earlier in the season, Spain challenged Schlittenhart to pick up more fouls - not to encourage dirty play, but to promote an aggressive mindset.
"I definitely think being a big, tough presence in the middle is a good thing," Schlittenhart said. "We basically need to win balls. In the beginning of the season ... we would get beat to the ball. We would kind of just get pushed around."
Now the Beavers are doing the pushing. And more of the winning.
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.