---Julianne Hoekzema

By Chad Hensley, NKU Sports Information

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Strong competition breeds strong individuals, which in turn, breeds strong teams. That is what Northern Kentucky University cross country coach Steve Kruse has hoped for the entire 2007 season when he completed the schedule.

NKU has competed against strong competition while running in the Dayton Flyer 5K and the Queen City Invitational, going up against Cincinnati, Dayton, Miami University and Xavier among others.

“Any time you run against Division I opponents, it’s always a challenge,” Kruse said. “We specifically seek out competitive meets to challenge our teams and our top runners. It’s a trial by fire. If we can do well in the early season against these teams, it prepares us for the post season.”

When the Norse take the course in the Southern Stampede at Joplin, Mo., the competition doesn’t get any easier.

The University of Arkansas, known for its cross country and track success in past years, is the favorite to win both team competitions, but Kruse said there will be some of the top Division II talent running as well.

“Preliminary scouting puts DII men’s teams Harding (8), host Missouri Southern State (18), Drury (25), and the always competitive Missouri-Rolla there as well,” Kruse said. “The women’s race promises to be a tough one with Harding (3), UC-San Diego (13), Pittsburg State (14), Missouri Southern State (21), Southwest Baptist (23) and Central Missouri (25). There will probably be more entered later in the week, but either way it will be a great meet.”

Another reason Kruse decided to schedule the trip to Joplin, Mo., is to give his teams a chance to see the course that will be the site of the NCAA Division II national finals this fall.

“We hope to gain knowledge of the course and knowledge of the other types of teams that also hope to qualify for the national meet in November,” Kruse said. “We ran the pre-national last year in Florida and it was truly the eye-opener that our team needed.

“They saw that we were as good as - and, in some cases, better - than the teams that were ranked way ahead of us. It is a challenge, but it is also a motivational tool that can uphold our beliefs in what we are working so hard for.”