LA CROSSE, Wis. (Blugolds.com) - At the beginning of the year, the 10,000-meter run wasn't even on the radar for Aaron Easker (Sr.-Eland, Wis./Wittenberg-Birnamwood).
The senior was so focused on running the 5,000-meter run, but after a sixth-place finish in the event at indoor nationals, the goal-driven Easker, who has dreamt of winning a national title for the last four years, wanted to make a change.
And it was a good thing he did, because his national title dreams became a reality Thursday night as he won the NCAA Division III title in the 10,000-meter run with a time of 29:48.25 at Roger Harring Field inside Veterans Memorial Stadium at UW-La Crosse.
"Coming into the year, I didn't even have the 10K on my goal sheet," Easker said. "But I didn't want to end my career saying, 'I wonder what I could have done if I had run a 10K.'"
Running in just his second career 10,000-meter run, Easker took the lead with 500 meters to go and held off a storming John Crain of North Central, who almost took the lead back from Easker with just over 100 meters to go. Crain took second in 29:49.45. Easker said he made his move to fight the wind and said he kicked as hard as he's ever kicked in his career.
"That last 100 meters, I was not letting anybody take that from me," he said. "It was an incredible last 100 meters of running down that homestretch and being able to celebrate at the end."
When he crossed the line first, he put his hands up and ran over to greet the large and belated Blugold crowd to cap off his four year quest.
"I never thought it would come true but it finally did and it felt great," he said. "My hard work paid off and it was just incredible."
His time is the second best in school history, and the only faster time is when he ran 29:33.37 at the Gina Relays on April 26.
Easker, the first outdoor national champion since 2010 and eighth in program history, will get a short break before he competes in the 5,000-meter run on Saturday.
Easker's event was the only final of the day for the Blugolds.
The men's 4x400-meter relay of Marty Richardson (Sr.-Kimberly, Wis.), Jacob Dennis-Oehling (Jr.-Whitewater, Wis.), Thurgood Dennis (So.-Allouez, Wis./Green Bay Notre Dame) and Cody Prince (So.-Appleton, Wis./North) grabbed the top prelim time in 3:10.13, the second fastest time in school history behind the one the same foursome set at the Drake Relays on April 27.
Dennis also qualified for Saturday's finals in the 200-meter dash with a time of 21.03 seconds, the second fastest qualifying time.
Jeremy Kieser (Sr.-Verona, Wis.) and Matt Scott (Jr.-Kiel, Wis.) helped make it a great day for the distance side of Blugold track, as the two qualified for Saturday's finals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 1,500-meter run, respectively.
Kieser ran the steeple to a time of 9:08.78 while Scott ran the 1,500-meters in 3:53.30.
In the decathlon, Brandon Zarnoth (So.-Appleton, Wis./North) and Bart Mestelle (Sr.-Sun Prairie) sit in second with 3,707 points and sixth with 3,511 points, respectively, after five events scored.
The men's 4x100-meter relay of Cory White (So.-Tomah, Wis.), Prince, Richardson and Dennis false-started in the prelims of their event and did not make it to finals.
On the women's side, Erin Schoenfelder (Sr.-Antioch, Ill./Antioch Community) broke her own school record in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 1:00.91. She just broke the old school record, which had been held for over 20 years, at the WIAC championships two weeks earlier.
Ashlyn Mauer (Sr.-Sheboygan Falls, Wis.) and Alyssa Sybilrud (Sr.-Burnsville, Minn.) both ran well enough to make Saturday's 3,000-meter steeplechase final.
Mauer took seventh with a time of 10:42.87 while Sybilrud was right behind her in ninth place with a time of 10:44.26.
The 4x400-meter relay of Steph Rouse (So.-Hopkins, Minn.), Brooke Patterson (So.-Sussex, Wis./Hamilton), Jessica Rupnow (Fr.-Sussex, Wis./Hamilton) and Schoenfelder took eight in a time of 3:47.87, their fastest time of the year, to earn themselves a spot in Saturday's finals.
Kelsey Weigel (Jr.-Marshfield, Wis.) currently sits in 14th after four events scored in the heptathlon.
Also competing for the Blugold women but failing to reach finals were the 4x100-meter relay team of Carly Fehler (So.-Oak Creek, Wis.), Megan Mulligan (So.-Lake Geneva/Badger), Rupnow and Patterson. Mulligan also competed in the 200-meter dash but failed to make finals.
After a historic opening night on the track, the Blugolds will get back to action with more prelims and three finals, the women's hammer throw along with the decathlon and heptathlon, Friday before the final day of competition Saturday.
The Blugold women do not have any points because they have not competed in any finals, but Easker's victory gives the Blugold men 10 points and puts them in a fifth-place tie. Easker is hoping his team can feed off of his performance Thursday night.
"Hopefully it motivates the rest of them," he said. "I was just really excited to do my part for the team."