Breathe evenly. Splash puddles. Slog mud. Remember your pace. Uphill. Downhill. Across a plain. Through some trees. Remember your pace. Pack together. Chase the runner. Remember your pace. Push it now. Kick your legs. Give it everything. Remember your pace.

Breathe evenly. Splash puddles. Slog mud. Remember your pace. Uphill. Downhill. Across a plain. Through some trees. Remember your pace. Pack together. Chase the runner. Remember your pace. Push it now. Kick your legs. Give it everything. Remember your pace.

Cross country running is an almost religious pursuit of discipline. Runners possess commitment to a plan, dedication to a lifestyle and obsession for improvement. For Southern Oregon University runners the cross country sermon is preached in terms of pace.

The voice from the pulpit is third-year head coach Brent Ericksen. In his short-tenure Ericksen has set a standard of high expectations and the ability to meet them. His program is designed to maximize what an athlete, or in this case program, can do. His job as coach is to see that potential realized. He must keep the program on the right pace.

"We are a very pace-oriented team," Ericksen said. "We get them to the starting line feeling good."

For the last several seasons, the men's team has been feeling real good. The Raiders captured the Cascade Conference championship the last two seasons, finishing fourth in 2008 and third in 2009 at the NAIA national championships. This year they've set their sights even higher.

"Our goal is to win the national championship," senior captain Dennis McCaffrey said. "We don't even talk about it, we know that's the goal."

On a team that returns its top 10 runners from last season, the talent is certainly there to make a run.

"We have a couple of seniors who are very serious about what they are doing," says Ericksen. "We are continually striving to be a national championship team."

The test begins Saturday in Seattle's Lincoln Park when the Raiders run in the University of Washington Sundodger Cross Country Invitational. In search of tougher competition SOU applied for the Division 1-only competition and was granted admission.

"The guys wanted to be pushed this year, and to push themselves a little harder," explains Ericksen. "These guys will be challenged significantly by the Pac-10 schools."

The women's team is in the middle of a transformation. When Ericksen took the helm in 2008 the program had only two athletes. After his first two seasons results are evident; the Raider women finished the season ranked 25th and Seena Frantz, an Ashland High graduate, earned All-American honors as a freshman.

Heading into the season big things are expected of this women's squad. It's ranked No. 25 in the NAIA preseason poll; this weekend will gauge the accuracy of that ranking.

"We have so many new runners on (the women's) side," says Ericksen. "We're seeing where we are at right now."

The team is further along than it was in 2008, as the women field 18 athletes with the top seven runners competing for scores. As the season progresses some of the talent should come together and help the team come together.

"I would really like our girls to make it to nationals," says sophomore Laurie Stoutenburgh. "That's the big motivator for all of us, to run there together."

The girls will also be running in Seattle this weekend. It will be the first step to seeing the program come together as it outgrows its small reputation.

"We are getting that depth and really having a full team," Ericksen says. "We are starting to turn that corner."

To turn that corner the runners stay dedicated to coach Ericksen's methods. His philosophy is based on maximizing body performance, and is highly technical. Runners can be seen with charts spread out in front of them; they constantly mark out their progress and adjust accordingly. Calculators are not an uncommon site.

"It is pretty straightforward," senior All-American David Laney said. "Sometimes I think there's no way I could do this, but I know (Ericksen) wouldn't ask me to do anything I couldn't."

"He really works with everyone individually," Stoutenburgh added. "It builds a stronger program because you know he cares about you, he isn't just sending you out to go run."

So far the athletes are buying Ericksen's sermon. The results have been an immediate improvement, but there is room and desire for improvement.

In Seattle the Raiders will take their first steps toward their goals of coming together and a national championship.

Right now its time to work on pace.