Pack Men
Men's cross country team wins second national title in record-setting fashion
By Jeff Febus '92

Men's Cross Country National Championship Team - click to enlarge image
Back: David Haagsma, Hendrik Kok, Jeff Engbers, Kris Koster, assistant coach Robert Hyde, coach Al Hoekstra, coach Brian Diemer. Front: Tim Avery, Matt Edwards, Brian PAff, Tim Finnegan, assistant coach Tim VanHaitsma

The Calvin men’s cross country team came up with a race for the history books in capturing their second national title at the NCAA III Cross Country Championships, hosted by Hanover College in November.

The top-ranked Knights lived up to their billing as they posted a dominating first-place team score of 48 points — the second-lowest team score in NCAA III Championship history in men’s cross country, surpassed only by the 32 point score turned in by North Central’s 1993 national championship team.

Calvin finished 80 points ahead of runner-up Wisconsin-Stevens Point (128 points), with North Central placing third (155 points) and Wisconsin-LaCrosse fourth (163 points).

Calvin’s score was built on the strength of six individual All-American performances. The Knights placed six runners in the top 30 to become the first team in NCAA III men’s cross country history to have six All-Americans in the same year. Calvin’s victory margin of 80 points is also the fourth best in NCAA III men’s cross country history.

"To win a national championship as a team is one of the most incredible accomplishments you can experience in athletics." — Brian Diemer, coach

The national title is the second in Calvin men’s cross country history. The other occured in 2000, when the Knights posted a first-place score of 65 points at the national meet held in Spokane, Wash. The national crown is also the sixth NCAA III title in Calvin athletic history, with the women’s cross country team winning in 1998 and 1999 and the men’s basketball team in 1992 and 2000.

“To win a national championship as a team is one of the most incredible accomplishments you can experience in athletics,” said Calvin men’s cross country coach Brian Diemer, a three-time U.S. Olympian in track and field. "To win a national title, it takes everyone to do their part and make it happen. The teamwork that this team had throughout the entire season has been truly remarkable.”

Calvin was led in the 8K race by senior David Haagsma (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and junior Hendrik Kok (Lynden, Wash.). Haagsma placed seventh (25:21) and Kok eighth (25:24) on a warm afternoon that saw temperatures rise near 70 degrees.

The time spread between Calvin’s first and fifth runner was only 21 seconds (with the spread between its first and sixth runner just 24 seconds). Senior Tim Avery (Rochester, N.Y.) took 15th (25:35), freshman Tim Finnegan (Los Alamos, N.M.) 16th (25:35), senior Kris Koster (Grand Rapids, Mich.) 27th (25:42) and senior Matt Edwards (Grand Blanc, Mich.) 30th (25:44). The top 35 finishers at the national meet are All-Americans.

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2000 National Championship

Rounding out Calvin’s finishers was junior Jeff Engbers (Whitinsville, Mass.) who placed 131st (27:03).

According to Haagsma, falling back was not an option despite the warm temperature. “This race hurt more than any other race in my life, but there was no way I was going to fall back or give up,” said Haagsma, who wobbled in the last 10 yards but managed to cross the finish line standing. “When you’re running in a pack like we did today, you get an extra surge of energy, and there’s no way you want to let your teammates down. We found each other early in the race, and once we knew that we were doing it (winning), we weren’t going to back down.”

Pack running was a key, said Calvin coach Al Hoekstra, who shares the men’s coaching duties with Diemer. “The running conditions were warm, and some of the teams that were expected to contend for the title had their runners separated,” said Hoekstra. “Our guys were able to keep in sight of each other, and, at times, they ran as a group. That allowed them to hang on and keep from falling back. Pack running is the way this team has run all year, and that game plan didn’t change today.”

A week prior, Calvin took first place at the Great Lakes Regional, also hosted by Hanover College. Having the experience of running on the course the week before gave the Knights a home-field advantage, said Hoekstra. “Even though we were six-and-a-half hours away from home, we were still running in our own region, so we kind of felt like we were the home team, which was a big psychological advantage,” said Hoekstra. “It also gave our fans the chance to drive down and support us, and they were amazing. I can’t ever remember seeing such a big crowd of supporters at a race we have been in, let alone a national meet."

With his eighth-place individual finish, Kok captured All-American honors for the second consecutive year, after finishing ninth the year before. It also completed an amazing comeback for the Lynden, Wash., native who battled asthma difficulties throughout the season that kept him from finishing an 8K race until November. “It’s been an up-and-down year, but it could not have finished any better,” said Kok. “Back in October, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to help our team at nationals. I definitely feel blessed to have the opportunity to race today. Individual accomplishments are great, but nothing compares to winning a championship as a team.”

Hendrik Kok and Kris Koster
Hendrik Kok and Kris Koster

Another remarkable comeback was turned in by Koster. Nicknamed “Seabiscuit” after the famous race horse of the 1930s, Koster was sidelined for nearly the entire 2003 track and field season with a severe stress fracture of his leg. Heading into the summer months, Koster was still unable to run, but he gradually worked his way back to form through vigorous cross-training on his bike while working as a ranch hand in southwest Colorado. “It’s been a long road back,” said Koster, who made his fourth straight appearance at the national meet. “At times I had some doubts, but this team is what kept me going. I knew the rest of the guys wanted it [a national title] bad and were putting in the work to win it this summer. That kept me going. My teammates refused to let me give up.”

Also making his fourth straight appearance at nationals was Avery, who improved 45 spots over his 60th place finish at the 2002 national meet. Engbers and Finnegan were both making their national debuts.

"When you're running in a pack..., you get an extra surge of energy, and there's no way you want to let your teammates down. — David Haagsma

When asked to compare this year’s team to Calvin’s 2000 national championship squad, Diemer said that the 2000 team paved the way for future success. “Each team has its own identity and personality, and that has been the case with both our national championship teams,” said Diemer. “The unique thing about the 2000 team was that they were the ones that got a huge monkey off our backs by winning a national title after we had been so close so many times before. The 2000 team won the title not just by talent but also by supporting one another, and this year’s team caught that same attitude and ran with it.”

When citing an example of Calvin’s selfless attitude, he referred to fifth-year senior Brian Paff of National City, Calif. A member of Calvin’s top-seven a year ago, Paff finished 78th at the 2002 national meet and ran as Calvin’s sixth man. Heading into his final year of collegiate competition, Paff could have sought individual glory but instead sought out the greater good of the team as he willingly accepted the role of Calvin’s alternate runner as its eighth man at the end of the season. “Brian has been the glue behind this team. He has always had this team in his heart,” said Diemer. “He has organized Bible studies, encouraged his teammates and never let anyone give up hope. He has the kind of talent where he could have been an All-American this year, but he willingly sacrificed his spot for someone else. I can’t say enough about that young man. He was a team leader in every way possible this year.”

The national title capped an incredible season for the Knights, as they captured an unprecendented 17th straight MIAA crown earlier in the fall. Koster and Haagsma shared the MIAA’s Most Valuable Runner award and were named to the All-MIAA first team. Also named to the All-MIAA first team were Edwards, Avery, Finnegan, Engbers and junior Andy Yazzie.

Two weeks later, Calvin captured its 15th Great Lakes Regional title in the last 17 years. Calvin came up with a perfect score of 15 points at both the MIAA Championships and Great Lakes Regional meets. The perfect score at the Great Lakes Regional meet marked just the second time the feat had been accomplished. Kok captured his second straight Great Lakes Regional title and was later named Great Lakes Regional Athlete of the Year for the second straight year. He also landed a spot on the Great Lakes All-Region team along with Koster, Haagsma, Finnegan, Avery, Engbers and Edwards.