Of the three Haskell Indian Nations University runners competing in the NAIA cross country national championships today in Vancouver, Wash., two are freshmen. And regardless of how freshmen Brannon Wallace and Talisa Budder race, Haskell coach Al Gipp is excited to have two cornerstones for the future.
“Hopefully that will in turn be a foundation to get a few more guys and girls to build around,” Gipp said.
Ask either runner what it’s like to be on the national level this early in their careers, and the responses aren’t that different.
“What can I say?” Wallace said. “I’m excited, it’s my first year.”
This is the first cross country national championship for senior Thomas Zunie as well. Though he has been to track nationals in the marathon, Zunie said the same achievement in cross country was more satisfying.
“It’s more intense with more people, rather than one small field,” Zunie said.
The three runners qualified for nationals at the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference championships on Nov. 5. Budder placed first in the women’s race, while Zunie and Wallace finished first and second, respectively, in the men’s race.
Budder said the journey to the national stage hasn’t been easy.
“It was hard at conference, and it’s going to be harder at nationals,” she said. “You just have to push yourself through all of it.”
As coach of Haskell men’s and women’s teams once ranked second in the nation, Gipp had hoped both teams would qualify for nationals this season. But injuries and illnesses at the time of the conference meet hurt the Indians, and only individual runners qualified.
The success that Haskell did enjoy might have had something to do with a connection between Zunie and Wallace, who attended the same high school for a year. The Zuni, N.M., natives kept pace with each other during the conference meet and blew away the competition — the next closest runner was almost a full minute behind Wallace.
“I really believe they fed off of each other’s energy, even though they were just seconds apart,” Gipp said. “That was a real plus for us.”
That’s the type of teamwork Gipp wants to see this weekend. When the runners race at Vancouver, they will be running for more than just themselves.
“I want to make a name out there for myself and for Haskell,” Wallace said.