The Lawrence University men’s cross country team snuck up on the competition a little bit at the 2010 Midwest Conference Championships.

No such luck this year because the Vikings are coming up as fast as a Mack truck in your rear-view mirror.

After finishing sixth at the 2009 conference meet, the Vikings jumped up to second last season and are contenders for the title on Saturday. The meet begins with the women’s race at 11 a.m., and the men run at noon on the course just west of the Ripon College campus.

“I think it puts more pressure on everyone else,” Lawrence coach Jason Fast said. “Last year the other teams didn’t feel that pressure to beat us. Now we’re legitimate contenders. They know we’re going to be up there and have to take us seriously.”

The Vikings return four of their top five men’s runners from a season ago, including all-conference honorees Sam Stevens and Curran Carlile.

Stevens, a junior from Suamico, Wis., finished third last season and is the top returning runner in the league. Stevens is attempting to be the first men’s conference champion from Lawrence since Eric Griffin won back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985. Carlile grabbed seventh as a freshman in 2010 and has been the Vikings’ No. 2 runner all season.

“Sam’s the top returner and he hasn’t lost to a runner from the Midwest Conference all year,” Fast said. “He would be very disappointed if he didn’t win. We need him to win. I think the team race is going to be a point or two either way. It’s not going to be a landslide victory. Every spot counts.”

The Vikings are looking to wrest the championship trophy away from Grinnell College, which is working on a streak of 14 consecutive league titles.

“It’s going to take a great effort,” Fast said. “You can’t have a lackluster effort and win a championship, especially this year. This will be Grinnell going for 15 in a row and that’s a big deal. I fully expect Grinnell to throw everything at us this weekend and have their best race.”

Fast said the team ran one of its best races of the 2010 season at the MWC Championships. Given the team’s focus on winning the conference title, he believes the same thing can happen on Saturday.

“We’ve been talking about it for a really long time now. We’ve been talking about winning it since the beginning of the season,” Fast said. “As we started to see it progress, it’s taken on a life of its own. They’ve responded really well to it. They were ready to go this last weekend.”

The Lawrence women are also looking to move up after taking seventh in 2010. Leading the way for Lawrence is senior Emily Muhs of Janesville, Wis. Muhs finished seventh last season and earned all-conference honors for the second consecutive season.

“Emily wants to improve. She wants to be top five,” Fast said. “We’d like her to be top five. That would really help us in the team race. A lot of the teams we’re competing with don’t have that low number at the top.

“She’s progressed slowly this year but she is coming along. She generally has her best races of the year at conference.”

Fast also believes sophomore Anna Ratliff and freshman Maggie Mahaffa can reach the top 20 and earn all-conference honors as well.

“They’ve both been racing really well all season,” Fast said of Ratliff and Mahaffa. “They have continuously improved from meet to meet. I think if they can continue that at conference, they will have a shot to be in the top 20.”

Win and they’re in

Both the Lawrence men’s soccer team and volleyball team need a win and they are in their respective four-team conference tournaments.

Men’s soccer travels to Illinois College on Saturday, and a victory would put the Vikings (6-9-1, 5-2-1 MWC) in the MWC Tournament for the second consecutive season. The Vikings have won six of the last seven meetings against the Blueboys, but Lawrence needed overtime to win the match last season.

The volleyball team is looking for its first trip to the MWC Tournament since it went to its current four-team format in 2008.

Lawrence (12-17, 5-2 MWC) plays at Beloit on Friday and then travels to Lake Forest on Saturday. One win gets the Vikings in the tournament, and a pair of victories would assure Lawrence of no worse than the third seed.

Win and help needed

The Lawrence women’s soccer team needs a win in the regular-season finale Illinois College on Saturday and some help to get into the MWC Tournament for the second straight season.

The Vikings are 4-3-1 in the league (6-10-1 overall) and tied with Monmouth and Ripon for the final conference tournament spot. Lawrence, the defending MWC Tournament champion, holds the tiebreaker over Monmouth, but Ripon has the tiebreaker against the Vikings. Ripon does have to travel to Grinnell (5-1-1 MWC) for its final league contest.

History should be on the side of the Vikings, who are 13-0-0 in the series with Illinois College.

Editor’s Note: Inside LU Athletics is a weekly notes package written by Lawrence University Sports Information Director Joe Vanden Acker. It will feature teams and individual players, recap weekly awards or highlights and take a look at what’s ahead for the Vikings.