With just 1,000 meters remaining in the 10,000 meter Midwest Regional Cross Country Championship race in Peoria, Illinois, four runners began to pull away from their competitors. Among the frontrunners was Loyola’s own Sam Penzenstadler.
On a frigid Friday last week, the athletes were giving all they had to make the prestigious NCAA National Cross Country meet. All 208 runners in the race fought for the four available spots at nationals.
With 800 meters to go in the race, sophomore Penzenstadler momentarily surged ahead to take the lead. But moments before reaching the finish line, he was passed by two other runners. However, Penzenstadler’s third-place finish was enough to clinch an NCAA national berth.
The cross country standout, who first gained national notoriety last track season by achieving first team All-American honors in the mile and 1,500 meter races, is the first Loyola runner to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country National Meet since 2005.
Penzenstadler said all the hard training paid off and the achievement meant a lot to him. Because he normally runs much shorter distances for track and field, having success at a 10-kilometer event is particularly meaningful for him.
The Oshkosh, Wisconsin, native was one of four competitors from the midwest regional meet to qualify for cross country nationals. His third-place finish is a 38-place improvement from last year, when he placed 41st overall in the regional race.
“It was only my fourth ever 10k [event] so I didn’t really know how it was going to go,” Penzenstadler said. “I hadn’t really [run] a good 10k race before this, so it meant a lot to me.”
Although Loyola entered the race unranked as a team, the Ramblers finished 10th overall. This 10th-place finish marked Loyola’s best finish since 2005.
Mitchell Baum was the sixth Loyola runner to cross the finish line at Peoria.
“I would say we did pretty well. Given the fact that we were seventh in the conference and 10th in the region, coach was happy,” said Baum. “We always strive for better, and it would’ve been awesome to be top four, but that wasn’t realistic at this point, so 10th was good.”
Even though he has been Penzenstadler’s teammate for three years, Baum still remains in awe.
“Sam just as an individual and a human is so impressive, and he never ceases to amaze all of us. As his teammate, it is always inspiring to see someone come out in their junior and senior years of college and really shine,” Baum said. “Sam is a miler and then he goes and kills it in the 8k and 10k. That is inspiring because that shows us that we can’t limit ourselves.”
In his last collegiate cross country race, Penzenstadler will travel to Terre Haute, Indiana, to compete against some of the best distance runners in the nation. His goal is to become the first All-American in cross country at Loyola since Jim Westphal achieved the feat in 1989.
“I want to get a top-40 spot to be an All-American,” Penzenstadler said. “That would be a win in our book.”
Terre Haute is a familiar scene for Penzenstadler, who has already run the course on two separate occasions.
“The goal is to stay from 40th to 60th place. Just like regionals, it’s only going to be a couple seconds apart. So just stay there through [the first] 5k and move through [toward the top] there,” Penzenstadler said.
With his advancement into the national meet, Penzenstadler continues to add to his many accomplishments from his storied Loyola career. Bringing back more honors from Terre Haute would undoubtedly place Penzenstadler among the best of a long list of historically accomplished Loyola distance runners.