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UMD runners strive for titles as conference takes its final lap

Minnesota Duluth doesn't have a long and storied connection to the North Central Conference, but the Bulldogs would like to be in on a bit of history Saturday.

Minnesota Duluth doesn't have a long and storied connection to the North Central Conference, but the Bulldogs would like to be in on a bit of history Saturday.

The NCC, which had its first conference championships in 1922, is dissolving after 2007-08 and begins its farewell tour with the final league cross country meet for men and women.

The UMD men and senior Eric Atkinson of Spooner will vie for NCC titles to be decided at Pine Hill Golf Club. The Bulldogs have been league members since 2004 and will be moving back to the Northern Sun IntercollegiateConference in 2008.

"The last three years we've come into the conference meet knowing Mankato was the favorite and the best we could do was second,'' said UMD senior John Kallemeyn of Elk River, Minn. "This year we don't have a great shot at winning, but we definitely have a good, legitimate shot.''

Three-time defending champion Minnesota State-Mankato is ranked No. 12 in NCAA Division II and UMD is No. 19.

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The Bulldogs were second in the league in 2004 and 2006, while Atkinson placed second individually in 2006 and went on to qualify for the Division II meet, finishing 48th in the NCAA finals.

While plantar fasciitis, a foot ailment, caused Atkinson to cut short the 2007 indoor track season and caused him to miss about 2ยฝ months of training, he has had a strong fall season. He trained 90-100 miles a week during August -- with sophomore teammate Mike Kramer of Cloquet -- and has remained UMD's No. 1 runner for a third-straight year.

"I'm in better shape, and even though my times aren't as good as I want, my finishes in most meets are better than last year,'' Atkinson said. "Our team is arguably the best since I've been here.''

Atkinson and Kallemeyn are joined by Kramer, sophomore Zach Varty and junior Nate Anderson in the top five.

Mankato has all-NCC runners James Krajsa, Jesse Merkel and Dan Ristau. Augustana's Chad Backsen was third in the 2006 conference meet and is among Saturday's favorites.

UMD coach John Fulkrod thinks Atkinson could leave UMD as the best distance runner in school history, overtaking recent stars such as Andy Hopkins, George Hanson, Nate Beerling, Robb Winterfeld, Patrick Russell and Brett Carroll. Atkinson has personal bests of 24 minutes, 59 seconds for eight kilometers and 30:43 for 10K.

"Eric is a very smooth runner with great mental toughness. He runs with no fear,'' said Fulkrod, who is in his 17th season.

Atkinson, who has a 3.4 grade-point average, will receive an undergraduate degree in biology and a chemistry minor next May. He then plans to pursue an education degree and coaching minor. He expects to compete in two more track seasons and ultimately teach and coach. Kallemeyn has a 3.3 grade-point average and is majoring in chemical engineering.

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But their focus this week is on the 87th NCC men's cross country meet. UMD has been host to a small meet at Pine Hill the past four years, and Atkinson has won each time. No other league team has run on the course, which has 13 turns on each 2,400-meter loop.

"One thing I like to do is accelerate around corners, so this is a good course to help me catch up to someone or run away from someone,'' Atkinson said.

NCC women's race

No. 5-ranked Augustana (S.D.) is favored in the 27th and final NCC women's race. Eight of the top 12 finishers from the 2006 conference meet return, including Augustana sophomore Jillian Tholen, South Dakota junior Kelsey Maloney and UMD sophomore Liz Palkie, who placed 1-2-3, respectively. Also among the favorites are South Dakota sophomore Ramsey Kavan and North Dakota senior Heidi Evans.

Defending team champion North Dakota is ranked No. 16 in Division II.

The NCAA North Central Regional meet for men and women is Nov. 3 in Vermillion, S.D.

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