MILLIGAN COLLEGE, Tenn. (Nov. 7, 2019) -- Much will be on the line in Canton, Georgia, Saturday morning when the nationally ranked Milligan College cross-country teams head to the Appalachian Athletic Conference Championships. The No. 6 women have won 14 of the last 16 conference titles while the No. 15 men have won two of the last four.
The field is loaded with some of the nation's top runners. With SCAD Atlanta ranking No. 1 in the NAIA, the women's side features two teams in the top six nationally and four teams receiving national attention. Milligan is the favorite on the men's side, leading a group of three AAC teams inside or near the top 25.
"As the direct qualifier to the national championships, the AAC championships have always been extremely important to our season," Head Coach Chris Layne says. "If we're going to take that next step, it's imperative we perform well. In some form or fashion, this has always been a competitive league, but in recent years the quality and depth of the championship has gone to another level so there are a ton of bragging rights on the line."
Women's championship to feature two of the nation's best programs
Milligan has already come away victorious in two head-to-head meetings with AAC schools this season and will need to do that one more time against the NAIA's top-ranked program in order to earn this year's AAC title. Both schools have plenty of individual talent.
Emily Kearney, a five-time NAIA runner of the week this season, headlines SCAD Atlanta, while Milligan boasts sophomore Gabrielle Mardis, a track & field All-American in the 3000 meters; Erica Stone, a two-time track & field All-American over 1000 meters; and several others with national championship experience. In fact, the Buffs return seven of the eight who competed at last year's AAC championship and national championship.
"It's crazy, we have two of the top six teams in the nation in our conference," Layne says. "Both of these programs would contend for podium finishes in a bunch of NCAA Division I conferences, and that's pretty exciting. I've already told our women we're going to control what we can control, and that's us. We have a competitive bunch and they'll focus on running to the best of their ability."
Buffs this season
This season, Milligan posted three wins and a runner-up finish across four meets on the schedule. The lone runner-up finish came against James Madison, an NCAA D-I program and one of the top women's teams out of the Colonial Athletic Association. Milligan has a win-loss record of 45-1.
Among Milligan's wins, the Buffaloes beat Montreat and Tennessee Wesleyan head-to-head. Montreat and Tennessee Wesleyan rank No. 3 and No. 4 in the AAC and are both receiving votes in the latest coaches top 25 poll. Mardis led the Buffs against Tennessee Wesleyan with the individual win before Avery DeWolf led Milligan against Montreat, also with an individual win.
"As good as each of our women are individually, we have to do this by committee," Layne says. "We have 5-7 women that are all capable of running within 10-15 seconds of one another so we'll need to pack it in and race together the whole way."
The AAC Championships are set to take place at Boling Park in Canton, Georgia, with Reinhardt University as host. The men's race begins at 8:30 a.m. with the women's race to follow at 9:30 a.m. The awards presentation will follow on site at approximately 11 a.m.
The course, same as the one used for the 2018 AAC meet, is a combination of grass, crushed gravel and dirt paths. It consists of one 1 KM loop and two 2 KM loops for the women's race and four 2 KM loops for the men's race.
"Every coach should have a feel for what type of teams they have when the season starts, and honestly, I think both teams delivered at the level I expected to this point," Layne says. "But this weekend is a whole different story. We'll line up against national caliber programs on both sides with a lot on the line."