With the season just weeks away, coaches pick East Central and Harding to win the GAC title.

RUSSELLVILLE – With the opening weekend of the men’s cross country season slightly more than two weeks away, the Great American Conference’s head coaches voted East Central and Harding in a share of the top spot in the preseason poll, the conference office announced on Thursday.

In 2015, The Tigers scored their fourth GAC Championship in 2015, placed second at the NCAA Central Regional, qualified for the NCAA National Championships for the first time since 2011 and finished 16th in the country. Bruce Bragg, an All-Region and First-Team All-GAC performer returns for his senior season. Cole Montgomery, in taking seventh at the GAC Championships, became the third Tiger in five years to take home the GAC Freshman of the Year award. Adrian Guevara, 10th at the GAC Championships, gives ECU three First-Team All-GAC runners back in the fold for 2016.

Harding returns the top two returning finishers from the GAC Championships in seniors Lucas Goodspeed and Russell Chase. Goodspeed placed third while Chase came home in fourth. Both have earned First-Team All-GAC honors at each of the previous two GAC Championships. Goodspeed later finished 12th at the NCAA Central Regional to add an All-Region honor to his list of accolades. Larry Lopez, who joined Montgomery as the only freshman to register a top-10 finish at the GAC Championships also returns to the Bisons.

Southern Arkansas took third in the poll, four points ahead of Southern Nazarene. The 2016 Mulerider squad features three 2015 All-GAC performers in First-Team selection Doug Palmer and Second-Team runners Lane Alexander and Jose Guevara. Palmer finished in 10th at the GAC Championships, followed by Alexander (12th, third among freshmen) and Guevara (15th).

Arkansas-Monticello and Northwestern Oklahoma State tied for fifth to round out the poll.

Coaches did not include Oklahoma Baptist in the voting, per a league policy regarding schools transitioning into Division II. The Bison did compete at the 2015 GAC Championships, as unattached individuals, where Blaine Whitson finished 14th to garner a spot on the All-GAC Second Team. Whitson returns, as does Jacob Janzen, who finished as Oklahoma Baptist’s second runner at the NCCAA Championships, an event where the Bison placed fifth.

Five of the seven teams open their season on Sept. 3. Arkansas-Monticello competes at the Bob Gravett Invitational, hosted by Ouachita. East Central, Oklahoma Baptist and Northwestern Oklahoma State will race at Central Oklahoma’s UCO Land Run. Southern Arkansas visits Christian Brothers to participate at the Brooks Memphis Twilight. Southeastern Oklahoma State will host the 2016 GAC Cross Country Championships, set for Oct. 22 in Durant.