By Josh Neuhart
Grace College Sports Information
YANKTON, S.D. – Grace’s track and field team will end the indoor season this week in Yankton, S.D., for the 2021 NAIA National Championships.
The Lancers have an impressive array of competitors who qualified for the championships, which will be hosted at the new First Dakota Fieldhouse on the campus of Mount Marty University.
Just two years removed from having a single competitor at the indoor national meet, Grace now boasts a school-record 20 athletes who qualified in 2021.
“Several years ago I made a goal to have 20 athletes make it to nationals by the year 2020,” said Grace head coach Jeff Raymond. “We missed it by one year, but we’re thrilled to see how our program has developed and improved.”
Due to various COVID protocols, the qualification process changed this year in the NAIA. In the past, athletes could hit a certain mark to guarantee a spot at nationals. This season, only the top 16 performers in each individual event and relays qualified to compete.
“We took note of the national rankings each week and tried to judge what kind of performances we needed to qualify,” Raymond added. “We knew we had a few events in the top 16, but last week at the Crossroads League meet, we performed extremely well and added to our qualifiers.”
The Lancers head to the national meet with several individuals and relays ranked highly among the qualifiers. The men’s 4×800-meter relay earned All-American honors last season and enters the meet with the second-best time in the NAIA. The group is made up of Isaac Beatty, Luke Smith, Kyle Smith and Maurice Macklin. Another men’s relay, the distance medley, broke the school record last week and go in ranked fourth in the NAIA. The squad includes Logan Rufenacht, Tyler Morrison, Tanner Sallee and Dimitri Margaritidis.
Returning All-American Isaac Brown will compete in the high jump, Kyle Smith will add the 600 meters to his relay duties, John Green is in the 200, and Bryan Hernandez-Rios will run the 3000.
Leading the women’s team is the 4×400 relay, which placed fifth at nationals a year ago and is currently seeded seventh. The group of Nordia Campbell, Ashley Stoltzfus, Gracious O’Connor and Julia Malson are coming off a league championship last weekend. Campbell has also qualified in the 200 meters.
The 4×800 relay made the meet for the women, featuring the foursome of Kaitlyn Mack, Elizabeth Moore, Makenzie Adams and Heather Plastow. Plastow will also compete in the mile, where she is ranked fourth. Rounding out the national competitors is freshman Mallory Hiatt, who will run the 5000 meters.
“With all we’ve gone through this year because of COVID, including a long list of protocols and changes in competition schedules, it’s a tribute to the student-athletes on our team that they were able to stay focused and strive for high goals,” Raymond said. “I also give assistant coaches Max Kittle and Jacob Poyner a lot of credit for their continuing effort to make our team better.”
Competition at the national meet begins on Wednesday and continues through Saturday.
“There is nothing guaranteed when you compete at nationals,” Raymond ended. “Regardless of where you’re ranked, you have to go there and perform at a very high level. I don’t think our team is satisfied with just qualifying. They want to go and make an impact.”