It has been two weeks since the Emporia State cross country teams last ran in a competitive race.

But both squads made an impression on their coach.

ESU’s men and women showed improvement at the MIAA Championships, strides that Mark Stanbrough hopes to see his student-athletes carry over into Saturday morning’s NCAA Central Regional.

“We want to build off what we did two weeks ago at the conference meet,” he said. “We had a fast improvement on both the men’s side and the women’s side. We moved up several spots from the previous conference meet. We want to build on that. We want to improve on our regional finish from a year ago.”

The two teams were among the region’s top 30 in 2018, but the improvements this year’s runners have made, varying from stunning to subtle, have the Hornets feeling optimistic heading in.

Sophomore Hannah Showalter has largely been ESU’s leader on the women’s side, though freshman Sarah Schaar was the lead finisher in the conference race, placing 27th overaell.

“I think I can go a little bit stronger and just get a better start, go compete and have fun,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of progression throughout the year, mostly just with attitudes, girls working together and trying to be the best people we can be and the best students and the best athletes.”

Sophomore Matthew Maki and senior Gabe Sams were the top two finishers for the men at the MIAA race, finishing 11th and 15th, both a little beyond the 25-minute mark in a 10K race.

Saturday will be just the second course of that distance ESU, or any of the competitors, will have faced. Adding that extra 2,000 kilometers for the championship rounds presents a unique challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

“It’s more of a mental barrier, I believe,” Maki said. “If you can think of it just as another race, that’s all that you’ve got to really think about. Last year, I was in a position that a lot of the freshmen are in now. All they’ve got to do is just stay positive and give a really good effort.

Though there are no clear-cut favorites for ESU, Stanbrough also believes he may have a pair of potential dark horses at qualifying for the national race in Maki and Sams.

“It’s possible, (but) its probably improbable at this point,” he said. “(Maki) may be a year away from it, but its a possibility, you never know. You go out and stick your nose in the race ... in the last two races, he’s been up in the lead at some point. I think he’s going to be up near the front and when you put yourself near the front, it’s a possibility.”

The women’s race, too, has added distance for the championships, which led Stanbrough to encourage his runners by focusing on the journey rather than solely the line at the end.

That worked two weeks ago. He hopes it will again.

“We normally run a 5K and our goal was to go through the 5K at P.R. pace and keep on going and they did it,” he said. “This week, we’re going to try to go a little faster through the 5K and get another a P.R. and continue it.”

The races will begin at 10 a.m. for the women and 11:15 a.m. for the men at the Tom Rutledge Cross Country Course in Joplin.

“My goal is to just give a really good effort,” Maki said. “Coach believes that there’s a chance I could qualify for nationals. That would be really cool, but really (my focus is to) give it my best effort and giving everything I’ve got for this team to be a good leader and help them get a good finish.”

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