CEDAR RAPIDS — Annie Ertz is used to running alongside Kelsi Huhndorf and Hallie Kephart.
Four years ago, the trio helped the Marion Indians place sixth at the Iowa high school state cross country championships.
Now, along with Ertz’s sister Jessica, a quartet of Marion graduates will represent the Mount Mercy Mustangs at the NAIA Women’s Cross Country National Championships Friday in Vancouver, Wash.
“It is amazing,” Annie Ertz said. “That senior year of high school with all of them was one of the best years, and then this year it is kind of the same way. All of us are really close and I think that is why we are doing so well, just because our team is so tight.”
The Mount Mercy women qualified for nationals as a team after winning their first Heart of America conference title Sunday at Fayette, Mo. The Mustangs placed four runners in the top eight, led by women’s 5K individual champion Vanessa Cortes, who won in 19:25.
“We were super relieved to get that,” first-year Mount Mercy Coach Tad Hulst said. “Because going in, we knew that with the way national qualifying is, it was going take the conference champ and we were not going to get a second team out. We knew that going in and we knew we had to fight for every spot and every second and this squad did that.”
Mount Mercy sophomore Emily Erickson finished fifth overall, Annie Ertz was sixth and Huhndorf was eighth. The Mount Mercy men will be represented at nationals by one runner, senior Jacob Blackmon.
This will be the 14th year in a row that the Mount Mercy women’s program has been represented at nationals and the 12th year in a row for the men.
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“It is a tradition that we want to keep going,” Hulst said. “It definitely never gets old. It is an experience. This group is really ready for a fun trip, but also to compete well and to lay it all out there like they have done all season.”
Mount Mercy earned its first cross country All-American last year when James Lindstrom finished sixth at nationals in the men’s 8K. Cortes could join him and become the first female cross country All-American in school history by finishing in the top 35.
“That is one of my biggest goals this week,” said Cortes, a Bakersfield, Calif., native who finished 74th at nationals last year. “Definitely to become an All-American or at least get close to it. But those are my biggest goals and set a personal record if I can.”
The Mount Mercy women are currently ranked 36th in the NAIA National Coaches Poll, but are confident that last year’s 24th-place team finish can be duplicated.
“I think we have a good shot to be in that place,” Hulst said. “I think that (36th ranking) is a bit of a disservice to the squad, so I hope that we run with a little chip on our shoulder because this group is way more talented than that ranking.”
At the NCAA Division III cross country championships Saturday in Louisville, Ky., Luther will be represented by senior Vera Lindhorst and freshman Ian Kelly.