November 20, 2003 11:00 pm

History could be in the making for the Eastern Oregon cross country men Saturday.

EOU's men's and women's team are competing in the NAIA Cross Country nationals in Louisville, Ky.

Expectations are riding high for the men in particular. Eastern, which finished second in the nation last year, is ranked No. 1 going into nationals. The pressure doesn't seem to be getting to them, said coach Ben Welch.

"Right now, they're the most relaxed they've been in a month," Welch said. "They're happy to be on the road. Their energy level is coming back."

If the Eastern men can come out on top, it will be a first. Eastern has never won an NAIA national championship, though an EOU ski team won a U.S. Collegiate Skiing Association national combined championship in 1979.

The men are pretty healthy heading into Louisville, but it could be better. Several of the runners are fighting colds, but there aren't any major injuries.

One of the team's best runners, Brian Crowl, underwent hernia surgery last summer. There was concern before the season began that Crowl might not be able to run this year, but he recovered quickly and the surgery has not been a major problem, said Welch.

"Every once in a while, he feels a little discomfort, but for the most part, it's holding up really well," he said.

The men return most of their runners from last year's No. 2 team. They're led by Alex McGladrey, who finished 11th at nationals last year, and Crowl, who finished 13th and Michael Greenman, who finished 24th.

Minot State of North Dakota was the only school in the country to beat Eastern last year. Minot State graduated a lot of its runners and is not one of the top-ranked teams heading into nationals. Eastern's main rivals appear to be California State University-San Marcos, Cumberland (Ky.), Simon Fraser (B.C.), Malone (Ohio) and Azusa Pacific (Calif.).

While the men are going into Louisville as the "team to beat," the women's team is going in with a chip on its shoulders.

The Eastern women, which finished seventh in the NAIA meet last year, are ranked No. 22 this year. They went into the national meet ranked No. 15 last year and showed they were being underrated by the pollsters.

"Ranked 22nd, they have nothing to lose. They want to ruin a lot of people's days like last year," said Welch.

The women are much younger than the men's team. They return two leaders from last year's seventh-place team, Kelsey Jones, who finished 24th in the nation last year, and Jessyca Barker, who finished 27th.

The attitude of the men is completely different, said Welch.

"They're approaching it from the standpoint that everyone else has a job to do, which is to keep us from winning," he said.

The men have a little extra motivation. Several members of the team were suspended in midseason for alcohol-related violations of school rules. They are all back now, and Welch thinks this incident, though it was a negative at the time, can now serve as a positive motivator.

"They have something to prove. They let themselves down, they let their teammates down, they let me down," said Welch. "They want to atone for that. If that's taking a negative and turning it into a positive motivation, that works sometimes."

— Pierre LaBossire