Baldwin Ask coach Matt Candrl about the last time his Baker University women's cross country team was nationally ranked and can only shrug the shoulders.
After all, for a program that consisted of just one runner as recently as eight years ago, cracking the top 25 of the NAIA women's cross country poll is pretty much an unprecedented feat.
Yet the Wildcats were able to do exactly that when Baker claimed the 25th spot in the fourth poll of the season Oct. 1.
"It's a tremendously big step for the program," said Candrl, now in his fourth year as coach of Baker's track and cross country programs. "It's definitely a credit to the hard work that these women have put into the program over the last several years."
What makes the program's rise even more astounding in the personnel. Despite losing an all-American-caliber runner in graduated Jan Hammond, this season's young squad has picked up where last year's left off.
Led by two sophomores -- Liesel Kirk and Morgan Ouimette, both of whom competed at the national championships last season -- the rest of Baker's top five has consisted of two and sometimes even three freshmen.
"The great thing is that everyone will be back next season," Candrl said. "We're not going to lose anyone of our top seven or eight people to graduation. That means that we have a lot to look forward to."
Last Saturday, Baker held its own with two of the top-ranked teams in NAIA at the Hastings Invitational. Baker finished third with 44 points, just two points behind No. 20-ranked Doane and seven points behind No. 11-ranked Hastings.
Kirk and Ouimette led the way by placing third and fourth respectively. Kirk finished the 5,000-meter course in a time of 19:44 while Ouimette crossed the finish at the 19:52 mark. Freshmen Jenny Schultz (10th place, 20:49), Molly Humphries (12th, 21:10) and Kristi Anspaugh (15th, 21:40) rounded out the top five.
Juniors Moira Ozias, Katie Hennes and Kelly Weir also all finished in the top 25.
"It shows that we're a team that deserves our ranking," Candrl said. "The thing is, we've been within a couple points of moving up a place at a lot of our meets. Hopefully, as the season progresses we will leap over some teams."
Next is the NAIA Mid-States Meet on Oct. 16 at William Jewell.
Another big meet will be Nov. 6 in Lamoni, Iowa, when the Wildcats try to knock off two-time defending champion Lindenwood for the team title in the conference meet.
"It's been real exciting to witness the development of the returners," said Candrl, who was also last year's NAIA Midwest Region coach of the year. "They have built on what they accomplished last year and we've been a lot more solid team from top to bottom."