WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- The women's cross country team will make a little Whitman College athletic history on Saturday when it becomes the first Missionary cross country squad to compete at the NCAA Division III national championships.

             Kristen Ballinger #88, Emilie Gilbert #99

Saturday's 6,000-meter race gets underway at 8 a.m. (Pacific time) at the Highland Park Golf Course in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Prior to the late-1990s, when Whitman and other Northwest Conference schools shifted their national affiliation and became eligible for the NCAA Division III championships, Missionary cross country teams had competed frequently in the NAIA national meet. 

In each of the past two years, the Whitman women's team came close to qualifying for the NCAA championships but missed out when at-large berths were awarded. This fall's team broke through the national barrier last Saturday by placing second at the West Region meet in Claremont, Calif., to secure an automatic berth.

Slated to run Saturday for the Whitman women are seniors Yasmeen Colis, Sara McCune, Michela Corcorran, Heather O'Moore and Emily Rodriguez, junior Kristen Ballinger and first-year Missionary Emilie Gilbert. Sophomore Sara Levy is the alternate and will run on Saturday if one of her teammates is not able to race.

About half the team is nursing recent bouts with the flu or various physical ailments, but coach Malcolm Dunn expects his top seven to be ready on Saturday.

    Sara McCune #291, Yasmeen Colis #284

"The spirits are very high," Dunn said. "Our runners are very excited to be running at nationals, but it isn't a case where they are just happy to be there. They want to race, run hard and compete.

"A lot of our runners aren't very happy with the way they ran at the regional meet, mostly because of health issues. They want to run a better race on Saturday."

Only three Whitman runners will be 100 percent from a physical standpoint on Saturday, Dunn said. "The rest will be dealing to some degree with illness or injury, but I doubt that we will be alone in that respect.

"I don't think there will be too many teams running at 100 percent, especially since the flu season is in full swing."

His five seniors also have the added motivation that comes with running their final races at the collegiate level, Dunn added. "You can expect all of our runners to throw everything they have into this race."

The Whitman women, ranked as high as No. 18 in the NCAA DIII national poll this season, sit in the No. 25 slot in this week's rankings.

"If we can finish anywhere in the top 25 on Saturday, that will be a good race for us," Dunn said. 

Saturday's field will include 32 teams and 56 runners who qualified as individuals.

A year ago, Kristen Ballinger qualified individually for nationals and placed 107th in a field of 279 runners. Other Whitman runners who made it to previous NCAA championship events were Laura Matsen, who placed ninth at nationals in 2003; Sierra Witnov, who placed 105th in 2004 and 100th in 2002; and Jennie Wood, who was 72nd at the 2000 championships.

At last Saturday's West Region meet, Yasmeen Colis and Sara McCune had the best Whitman finishes, placing 12th and 16th, respectively.

Rounding out the Whitman top five at regionals were Ballinger in 19th, Heather O'Moore in 32nd and Michela Corcorran in 34th.

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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; holden@whitman.edu