In a journey that has stretched over many years and down many roads, it was only fitting that the Calvin men's cross country team had to travel more than 1,500 miles to capture its first-ever national championship.
Ranked number-one in the country from September 12 on through the national meet, Calvin lived up to its billing as it rolled to a first place performance of 65 points at the NCAA III Championships November 18 hosted by Whitworth College at the snow-blotched Wandermere Golf Course.
Calvin used five All-America (top-35) performances to claim the national title as the Knights placed five runners in the top-30 to finish 22 points ahead of second-place Keene State of New Hampshire. Sixth-ranked Wisconsin-Oshkosh took third with 138 points while three-time defending national champion North Central took fourth with 143 points. Calvin's score of 65 points was the seventh-best team score in NCAA III men's cross country history and the best score since 1993. Saturday's national title is the fourth national crown by a Calvin athletic team in the last two years and the fifth in Calvin athletic history. Saturday's national crown joins the previous national titles won by the men's basketball team (1992 & 2000) and the women's cross country team (1998 & 1999). It also marks the 15th national team championship in MIAA history. In addition, it marked the third consecutive top-four national finish by the Calvin men's cross country team as the Knights took second in 1998 and fourth in 1999. Prior to 1998, Calvin had finished in sixth place five times and in third place once.
In several of its prior national championship appearances, the Knights felt they had the ability to win a national crown but always came up short, finishing second in 1998; fourth in 1999 and sixth on six previous occasions. At the NCAA’s November 18, the Knights put it all together as senior Dan Hoekstra of Kalamazoo Christian High School led the way with a second place individual performance of 24:57. Hoekstra's second place finish matches the highest finish by an MIAA men's cross country runner at the NCAA III Championships as John Brink and Adam Suarez of Calvin achieved the feat in 1982 and 1988 respectively.
Hoekstra jumped into the lead pack in the opening 800 meters and never let up, pushing for the lead on several occasions. With less than a mile to go, Hoekstra was still in position to win before individual favorite Tim McKoskey of North Central College pulled away to win the race by 10 seconds. Calvin's next finish was junior Joel Klooster (Chatham, ON) as he finished 10th in 25:21 to earn All-America accolades for the second time in his Calvin athletic career. Calvin junior Justin Momany-Pfruender (Midland) also grabbed All-America honors for the second time in his collegiate career as he was 14th in 25:22. Also earning All-America honors were senior Paul Petersen (Crawfordsville, IN) and sophomore Cam Harrison (Colorado Springs, CO) as Petersen was 22nd in 25:31 and Harrison 27th in 25:39.
The finish by Harrison was indeed clutch as he filled the all-important "fifth man" role as he kept the gap between Calvin's first and fifth runner under 45 seconds. Rounding out Calvin's finishers were freshmen Kris Koster (Grand Rapids Christian) and Tim Avery (Rochester, NY) as Koster was 100th in 26:25 and Avery 126th in 26:35.
"This is a team that has lifted each other up all year and they did that again today," said Calvin men's cross country coach Brian Diemer, who shared Division III National Coach of the Year honors with fellow Calvin coach Al Hoekstra. "The guys supported each other by running in a pack and built off that energy. This team is a special one because of its support for one another. Our runners have also been supported by the Lord. The guys have been focused on him all year long and have run for his glory."
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"This national championship has been a long time in the making," Diemer continued. "When Al and I took over the program 15 years ago, our goal was to someday win a national title. We've had so many individuals play a part in this program and everyone of them shares in what we accomplished today."
With five runners in the top-30, Calvin becomes just the fifth team in NCAA III men's cross country history to have five All-Americans in one year and the first since 1993.
Calvin's performance came against stiff competition as Keene State produced four All-Americans of its own as the Owls placed four runners in the top-35. "It took our absolute best effort to beat Keene State," said Hoekstra. "They have a tremendous team and I tip my cap to them. They pushed us to the limit."
A teary-eyed Hoekstra also reflected on the years of work that culminated in the national crown. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am," said Hoekstra. "There are so many individuals that played a part in this and it goes all the way back to the first year Brian and I began coaching at Calvin. I know that there were a lot of Calvin cross country alumni around the country who clicked on the internet today and had a huge smile on their face when they found out the final results. The tradition that every one of them has brought to this program is just tremendous."
Petersen also reflected on the national title. "We were running today for every runner who has ever worn a Calvin men's cross country uniform and we were also running for the Lord," said Petersen. "This team has an incredible spiritual focus and it was instilled in me during my freshman year by guys like Kent Frens (Class of 1999) and Reuben Zylstra (Class of 1998)."
When asked what was going through his mind in the final 800 meters of Saturday's race, Petersen referred to the 1983 film Chariots of Fire. "One of the main characters in the film is Eric Liddell and in the movie, he talks about how he felt God's pleasure when he ran," said Petersen. "That's the way I felt when I saw the finish line about 800 meters in front of me. I saw the finish line and the mountains beyond that and I just felt a rush of adrenaline. When God gives you a gift and you use it for his glory, it is one of the most fulfilling feelings you can have."
For Dan Hoekstra, Saturday's race was all about team support. Injured often throughout his career at Calvin, Hoekstra drew strength off of his teammates and used that in his comeback trail. "I've spent a lot of time in the pool because of my injuries," said Hoekstra. "That could have been a real lonely time but I've received so much support from my teammates and I've tried to return that by supporting them. When you have everyone pulling for each other it makes a huge difference. It kept my motivation up and I know everyone used that as motivation today. No-one wanted to let the rest of the team down today and they were willing to give it everything they had. This team is amazing and I could not have finished the way I did today without the support of my teammates."
The national championship performance capped off a string of glittering performances throughout the year as the Knights took first place in every race they competed in.
Calvin opened the year by winning the Wisconsin-Parkside Invitational with 70 points, edging three-time defending national champion North Central by three points. The following week at the MIAA jamboree hosted by St. Mary’s College, Calvin rolled to a perfect score of 15 points as the Knights placed 15 runners in the top 19 spots. The Knights also took first place at the Notre Dame Invitational; Michigan Intercollegiates and Great Midwest Classic.
At the MIAA championships hosted by Albion at the Whiffletree Golf Course, Calvin produced another perfect score of 15 with Hoekstra taking first; Momany-Pfruender taking second; Klooster taking third; Petersen taking fourth and Harrison taking fifth. Avery followed with a seventh place performance while Koster (Grand Rapids) was eighth. All seven Calvin runners were named to the All-MIAA first team with Hoekstra earning MIAA MVP accolades. Calvin’s MIAA title was its 14th consecutive league crown and 27th overall. It also marked just the third perfect score recorded at the MIAA men’s cross country championships.
Two weeks later at the Great Lakes Regional, Calvin captured its fifth consecutive regional title and 12th in the last 14 years with a score of 20 points. Calvin placed five runners in the top nine with Hoekstra earning first place honors with a time of 25:24. Named Great Lakes Regional Athlete of the Year after the meet, Hoekstra became the first Calvin men’s cross country runner to win a regional title since Ray Van Arragon achieved the feat in 1994. Hoekstra was part of a 1-2-3 Calvin finish as Klooster took second and Momany-Pfruender third. Petersen and Harrison also cracked the top 10 as Petersen was seventh and Harrison ninth while Avery was 17th and Koster 19th. All seven Calvin runners were named to the Great Lakes All-Region team with coach Brian Diemer receiving Great Lakes Regional Coach of the Year honors for the sixth time in the last seven years.