The No. 4 women’s and No. 20 men’s cross-country teams both competed and performed gallantly on Sept. 9 at the Indiana Wesleyan Twilight Invitational. On the women’s end, freshman Noel VanderWall led the way to a first-place finish and the Trojan men earned sixth place. Both went head-to-head with seven teams in the NAIA Coaches’ Top-25 rankings, 15 schools rounding out the women’s field and 18 the men’s.
At the race’s conclusion, the Taylor women posted a team score of 32 points, 50 points of separation from the next closest competitor, No. 9 Grace (86). Overall, the Trojans had nine runners place in the top 20.
VanderWall, a first-time participant in collegiate cross country, ran an impressive 5k, clocking in with a time of 17:51.6 and taking first place as an individual. She later said her 5k total time was a personal record (PR) of 40 seconds. Not only a significant PR, VanderWall’s run sets a freshman record in Taylor’s program history and fourth all-time including all classes included.
“I just keep telling people it was all God; it was not me,” VanderWall said. “I get pretty nervous and kind of expect a lot out of myself, but I didn’t feel that at all… It says a lot about Coach Q (Quinn White) and the team itself.”
Coach White, in his fourth season with the men and 13th with the women, said VanderWall ran like a veteran and is excited to see how she can work with the other girls to support each other.
The historic race led to Crossroads League Runner of the Week and the honor of being named NAIA National Runner of the Week. Besides the individual accolades, Noel was able to run with her sister, junior Ahna, and celebrate her own career-best time of 18:01.40 and third-place finish.
“It was really, really special,” VanderWall said. “We trained together all summer, which was huge for both of us… It’s definitely really cool to have her out here.”
Flipping to the men, their 158-point total fell short of the host Indiana Wesleyan’s 42 points, but put the Trojans ahead of conference opponents, No. 9 Huntington and No. 23 Goshen.
Junior Ben Eiffert shone the brightest for Taylor, coming in at 16th individually with a career-best 8k time of 25:39.00. Following suit, senior Josh Harden finished 23rd at 25:47.50 and posted his own best time. Both Trojans bested their PRs by over 30 seconds.
“It was definitely exciting,” Eiffert said. “I wouldn’t quite say unexpected because summer training went really well, but it definitely felt good to go and hit that (time) the first race.”
Breaking the 26-minute threshold was a goal Eiffert had going into the fall season and said it takes off any added pressure for the rest of the year’s events. Eiffert said he raced with Harden much of last season, and achieving similar goals together was incredible.
Before the fall ends, Eiffert said he wants to break the 25:30 mark in the 8k and make all-conference status in the Crossroads League.
Three freshmen also recorded top-50 finishes for the Trojans, including Ryan Hanak, Bryce Noble and Luke Harber.
White said the men’s team is very young but has leadership and experience up near the top and is excited for the progress to be made. Of the women’s squad, he said they have high expectations and are thrilled with the solid start.
On Sept. 16, both teams ran at a home meet in the 2022 Ray Bullock Invitational, with the men finishing third out of seven teams and the women winning their second straight title in dominant fashion, with a perfect score of 15.