University of Saint Mary runners have high expectations after stellar 2020-2021 season

Jason Brown
The Leavenworth Times
Shown is the University of Saint Mary men's cross country team following its eighth consecutive Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference championship in November 2020.

The University of Saint Mary running programs had what was likely one of its best years ever after both cross country teams earned top-10 finishes at the national meet. On top of that, both the indoor and outdoor track and field teams took distance runners to the national meet, to solid results. 

Spires head coach Alstin Bentin — entering his ninth season at Saint Mary — spoke to the media Wednesday at the Kansas Collegiate Conference's virtual cross country media day on Facebook Live about the upcoming season. 

Saint Mary will look to continue its dominance of the KCAC with the men eyeing their ninth-straight conference crown and the women going for their fourth in a row. The Spires were selected to finish atop the conference in both the men's and women's coaches poll, released Tuesday. They also had 19 individuals named to the conference preseason team. 

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The women's 10th-place finish at the NAIA national championships marked the best in program history. 

"Our expectations are high," Bentin said of the women's team. "I know they want to push that number higher. That's not our main focus but I know it's in the back of their minds. Our focus is to improve and be a better version of ourselves every day. They want to try and come home with a trophy so we're going to work toward that." 

All eight runners finished in the top 20 of the conference championship, including Alyssa Armendariz, who also placed in the top 50 at the national championship.

"We're really excited for what she's going to do this year," Bentin said of Armendariz. "She's in even better shape than she was last year. I'm excited and would be shocked if she isn't an All-American this year. The sky's the limit for her."

The other notable returners on the women's side include Riley Hiebert, Baylie Koonce, Reagan Hiebert, Maddy Walter-Sherretts, Lexi Inscho, Mallory Gallet and Emma Campbell.

The Spires made key additions on the women's side, including two local runners in Katelyn Havner (Leavenworth) and Emma Bresser (Lansing), who transferred from the University of Nebraska. 

Shown is the University of Saint Mary women's cross country team following its third Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference championship in four seasons.

"She was a Big 10 800-meter finalist," Bentin said of Bresser. "We're really excited to have her and see what she can do to help our cross country program and on the track."

On the men's side, the Spires return almost every athlete from the successful 2020 campaign, through the NAIA's ruling that athletes would not lose a year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We're really lucky," Bentin said. "We were able to bring back a lot of guys due to COVID-19 relief."

The returners include Luke Skinner, Johnathan Bowen, Eric Vazquez, Jared Stark, Brendan Erwin, Dylan Stoltzfus, Brayden Myers, Kaden Cooley, AJ Bohon, Jazton Burnett and Austin O'Dwyer. All of these athletes finished in the top 20 at the KCAC Championship in 2020, while Skinner was the individual champion.

As a team, the Spires finished fifth at the NAIA national championship, while Bowen, Erwin and Vazquez finished in the top 50.

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The men's made some key additions, headlined by Allen Community College transfer Brigg Merritt and Lansing runner Liam Niedig — both saw competition during the spring track and field season. Bentin said the class of newcomers is one of the best he's seen. 

"We have a pretty big freshmen class," he said. "Eight or nine guys. Super excited, one of most awesome freshmen classes I've ever had. Their passion for the sport is super cool and it gets me motivated for the next four years."

"These guys want to be successful and they want to win," he said. "They're going to do everything they can so our focus is working hard and being the best version of ourselves."

The Spires open the season Sept. 3 at the Bearcat Invite at Northwest Missouri State University.