The Lawrence University cross country program heads to the Midwest Conference Championships this weekend with both barrels loaded.

Both the Lawrence women’s and men’s teams are gunning for the title on Saturday at Oakland Acres Golf Club in Grinnell, Iowa.

“I think both teams have a shot to win,” said Lawrence coach Jason Fast, who saw his men finish second and the women take eighth place in 2012. “I’m more excited for this conference meet more than I have been for any other. To have both the men’s and women’s teams competing for conference titles isn’t something that happens every year. It has the potential to be a very special weekend.”

The Lawrence men figured to be near the top of the league, but it has been the women who are raising eyebrows across the conference. The Lawrence women won the title at the Concordia (Wis.) Falcon Invitational and helped win the combined team title at the Wisconsin Lutheran Invitational.

“Coming into the year I knew we were going to be a lot better,” Fast said of the women’s squad. “As the year went on it became obvious that our returners put in a lot of time over the summer to improve themselves. Combine that with some stellar performances from some freshmen, and that has really made the difference.”

Sophomore Clare Bruning was Lawrence’s lone returning all-conference runner after placing seventh, the top finish by a freshman, in the championships last season. Bruning is again in top form, but the Vikings have had numerous other runners take a step forward.

“Since last year the team has come so far as a whole,” Bruning said. “It’s not just me out front on my own anymore, now there’s a whole pack of us, pushing each other and encouraging each other. We’re really close, on the course in terms of running as well as our team dynamic off the course.”

Bruning is the only Lawrence runner with a top-10 time in the conference, but the Vikings have six runners in the top 20. Lawrence is the only team with that depth up front.

“This is probably one of the more competitive teams I’ve ever seen with regards to having such a tight one-to-seven spread,” Fast said. “We’ve had four different runners finish as our top runner.”

Bruning ranks 10th in the league with a season-best time over 6,000 meters of 23:27, and the rest of the Vikings are tightly bunched behind her. Freshman Amy Hutchings ranks 12th (23:47), sophomore Liz Landes is 13th (23:49), freshman Elin Karlsson is 17th (24:04), sophomore Cora Williams is 19th (24:06) and freshman Kristen Bischel is 20th (24:06).

“Whenever you place your team at or near the front, it’s going to be discouraging to other teams,” Fast said. “That’s definitely our plan, to pack up and push near the front and force teams to beat us or beat whoever we have to in the second half of the race.”

The Vikings’ top-five runners have been separated by as little as 28 seconds and just eight places during a meet this season. Bruning said this team is taking care of each other and they are running like a family.

“I feel like it’s all been building into a crescendo that’s going to culminate at the conference meet this weekend,” Bruning said. “We’re going into it with our eyes on the prize. We have a shot at the title, and we really want it. We’re heading to Grinnell with a goal, and hopefully we’ll return with a trophy.”

The Lawrence men are faced with trying to defeat a talented Grinnell team on its home course. The Vikings do have the firepower to do that, with returning all-conference runners Curran Carlile, Kyle Dockery and Jamie Brisbois and sophomore standout Jonah Laursen.

“On the guys side, we need to have our best race,” Fast said. “I would say our team this year has been a team of wild cards. We could be really good if we could get everybody together on the right day. We’re the only team in the conference that has the potential to beat Grinnell.”

Brisbois is leading the men’s pack right now and was just named the MWC Performer of the Week after turning in the sixth-fastest time in the conference at 8,000 meters (26:40).

“As a team, we have a lot of talent and a lot of as of yet unrealized potential,” Brisbois said. “To be a top-three team and give Grinnell a run for their money, we need our top group of runners to stay together and stay competitive during the tough middle miles of the race.  If we can accomplish this, I think we can do some damage this weekend.”

Swimmers sweep honors

Lawrence swept the conference’s first Swimmer of the Week awards. Hayley Cardinal won the women’s award, and Evan Flack took the men’s award. Cardinal won two events (100-yard breaststroke, 200 individual medley) and swam on a winning relay team (200 medley) as Lawrence opened its season with an impressive 143-54 dual meet victory over Beloit last Saturday. Flack also won two events (100 and 200 freestyle) and swam on a winning relay (200 freestyle) against the Bucs.

Climbing the list

Senior quarterback Luke Barthelmess continues to climb the conference’s career passing yards list and now ranks eighth in league history. Barthelmess passed former St. Norbert stars Cody Craig  (7,181) and Ryan Hartman (7,218) last Saturday and now has 7,256 passing yards heading into this weekend’s home game vs. Grinnell. He is just 65 yards from passing former Ripon star Paul Brandenburg (7,320) for seventh place and just 195 from another former Ripon standout, Eric Rich (7,450).

Editor’s Note: Inside LU Athletics is a notes package written by Lawrence University Director of Athletic Media Relations 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.