SIOUX FALLS -- In the preseason, Kray Person and his Augustana University cross country teammates believed they were good enough to get to the Division II national championships in suburban Tampa, Florida.
On Saturday, that's where they'll be, expecting to be in contention.
Person, a Burke High School graduate, adds depth to the men’s cross country team that hopes to leave its stamp in program history.
The Augustana men’s and women’s cross country team is coming off the NCAA Division II Central Regional meet where all 14 athletes earned U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association all-Region honors. Augustana was the only NCAA Division II program to have every athlete place in the top-25.
As they now prepare for the national championships this weekend, in hopes to have both the No. 4-ranked men’s and No. 3-ranked women’s team finish first for the first time in school history, the motivated junior runner is ecstatic for the opportunity he’s been waiting for over the past two years.
“It feels great where we are. We’ve worked really hard throughout the season to make it possible and the biggest thing that we’ve done is trust in (head coach) Tracy Hellman's training,” Person said. “I was already so motivated because of my injury that I just wanted to be better than I was and sitting out for that year I was really starving to get back. Then having to sit out another year for quarantine really had me amped for this season.”
A two-time Class B state individual runner-up for Burke/South Central in 2016 and 2017, Person suffered a torn hip labrum that required surgery and forced him to redshirt his freshman season with the Vikings in 2018. In October 2019, he ran an 8,000 meters race and finished in 28 minutes and 19 seconds. Two years later, he shed three minutes off that time and set a personal-best for 8,000 meters in 24:58.3.
He also ran a personal-best in the NCAA Central Regional meet finishing the 10,000-meter run in 29:59.2, beating his previous record by more than a minute and 30 seconds. Person placed seventh at the regional meet and has finished in the top five in two of his four meets this season.
Coming into the season, the Augustana's men’s cross country team was ranked No. 11 in the nation in the USTFCCCA preseason top-30 poll. Person said not only was hip injury enough motivation, but the entire team was not convinced there were 10 Division II teams were better than them.
“At the beginning of the year, we saw that 11th place ranking and we were a bit disappointed,” Person said. “We thought we were better than that and I think so far we’ve shown that, but we have to show one more time this weekend. It was certainly motivational for us.”
The Vikings are led by the NCAA Division II Central Region Coach of the Year Tracy Hellman and Person said his training and methods of keeping this team together as a unit is what has this team peaking at the time of the year.
“We’re all very excited to see what we have on this stage,” Person said. “Tracy has been saying all year we’re a championship team and he’s kind of an expert on peaking us all at the right time so I think we’re all pretty excited about what we can do. A lot of people think of cross country as a solo sport, but I don’t think that’s the case. We don’t care how well we place individually, we care about how the team places. We’re in it for the team.”
One of the biggest obstacles at the national meet will be matching the pace of Colorado Mines University. They’ve been in the top-3 nationally all season and as a team, they beat Augustana by nearly 100 points at the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival on Oct. 1 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Person said the team is anxious to respond and believes the outcome will not be the same.
“At the Chile Pepper meet, we ran against Colorado Mines and they were the No. 1 team in the nation,” Person said. “We didn’t fare very well there but we’re hoping to get in there and mix it up with them this time. They put eight guys in front of our first guy in that meet and I don’t think we’re going to let that happen again.”
Augustana University will compete alongside 33 other teams at 8:45 a.m. Central on Saturday, Nov. 20 at the Abbey Course in Saint Leo, Florida.