A season filled with high expectations and even higher achievements reaches the home stretch for the Southern Oregon University cross country teams when they travel to Vancouver, Wash. this weekend for the NAIA national championships.

A season filled with high expectations and even higher achievements reaches the home stretch for the Southern Oregon University cross country teams when they travel to Vancouver, Wash. this weekend for the NAIA national championships.

Both the men's and women's teams are poised to finish the season strong; however, they've come from worlds apart.

After a breakout season last year the Raider men spent this season playing the role of the hunted. Starting the preseason ranked No. 2 in the nation, SOU dominated the competition all year on the strong running of senior All-American David Laney and sophomore sensation Zach Elliott. Last weekend Elliott and Laney paced SOU to a third consecutive Cascade Conference championship and automatic berth to nationals.

The Raiders enter the national championships ranked No. 1.

The SOU women, ranked 10th, have shattered program expectations following head coach Brent Ericksen's meteoric progress chart this season. When Ericksen took over the program two years ago the program boasted two athletes. Now it has qualified for the national championships for the first time in school history, rocketing to the highest ranking in school history along the way.

"I've always had high goals for my teams, so (the girls' progress) is definitely not unexpected, but to say we would be a top-10 team isn't something I would have put on them to start the season," said Ericksen. "They are just so close as teammates and runners. They run and root each other on. Their team split one through five is 19 seconds that's really amazing."

The races will start mid-morning Saturday at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, with the women beginning at 10:30 a.m. and the men at 11:45. Sixty-four teams will descend upon the course, bringing with them more than 400 athletes.

This will be the first year that both SOU cross country teams will compete at nationals. It's also the first time that the women's team has qualified.

In the chaos and confusion of a race this size, SOU will have a calming advantage. At the expense of extra practice time at meets earlier this season, Ericksen opted to take his squads north into Washington for a little extra practice.

"We just wanted (our runners) to remember it's just a race," said Ericksen. He's hoping that being familiar with the course will settle pre-race jitters as Raider runners jockey for position. Being lost in a sea of humanity can be disorienting. Magnifying that by culminating a season's worth of work only turns up the heat on the pressure cooker. Any sort of edge in focus and familiarity will help the runners find their footing.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Raiders will be the physical nature of the race. With so many bodies and so little room to run, SOU can expect plenty of bumped elbows, shin scrapes and fallen opponents. The only option is to keep fighting.

"This is going to be a very aggressive race," said Ericksen. "There's going to be elbows thrown and shoulders bumping when people try to get position. Runners by nature are generally not aggressive, but we can't allow ourselves to get pushed around."

In other words SOU is going to have to establish position and possibly in unexpected ways.

The biggest goal heading into the final competition of the season is earning a combined team trophy. In all his years coaching track and cross country Ericksen has never received the award honoring the best overall programs.

"(Winning the combined) is something I've never done," he says. "They take your men's team score and your women's team score and average out those points. The top teams are rewarded for having strong men and women runners. I really think we are in a position to show the quality of our programs."

For SOU to win a combined trophy it will take the best efforts from the best runners. Laney and Elliott will lead a deep, talented men's squad returning plenty of upperclassmen.

The women will rely heavily on their youth movement. Last year's all-American Seena Frantz qualified fifth among the Raiders, who are led by super sophomore Anya Martinez and senior Kristen Juveland. Unlike the men, the women lack a true "pecking order" and any one of the top-five can lead the team in a given weekend. With only 19 seconds separating their last finishes the women can utilize that competitive nature to fuel an inspired performance.

Ericksen admits there is no way to predict who will win these races or to expect athletes to do that. Each day, each race things can change. There are going to be world-class runners who will truly test the Raiders' mettle. But there are few squads that boast that special something that seems to be in the Siskiyou air.

"(Preparing) is a season-long process," said Ericksen. "We have a plan that is a year long program. (Our program) is working great for both teams. We want (nationals) to be just another meet so that it's not a pressure-packed deal. The race is nothing new and we are prepared to run like we always do."